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Thursday Spotlight: Water, water everywhere, but . . .

Parksville mayor Chris Burger looks at the different turbidity samples of river water taken just hours apart. - Auren Ruvinsky photo
Parksville mayor Chris Burger looks at the different turbidity samples of river water taken just hours apart.
— image credit: Auren Ruvinsky photo

Work on several large scale Englishman River Water Service (ERWS) projects is plodding along nicely.

The projects were planned in the 1990s as three phases starting with storage, which was completed with the Arrowsmith Dam in 2000. Preliminary work on phase two, a new river water intake, is underway as scheduled, but phase three is being moved forward by about a decade.

Mike Squire, program manager for the ERWS, which provides water to Parksville and surrounding Regional District of Nanaimo communities like Nanoose Bay, explained that the plan to build a water treatment plant roughly 10 years after a new intake was complicated by a new provincial mandate that all surface water must be treated by the end of 2016.

Suddenly faced with having to build both a new intake and treatment facility at the same time, the ERWS looked at options to bring costs down and are now looking at adding an aquifer storage and recovery system (ASR).

The city received a $1.3 million grant from the federal government's Gas Tax Fund provincial grant to study ASR as a pilot project for the province. With that they studied the 13 aquifers in the area, selecting one along Kaye Road (near the weigh scales) as the best option.

They have drilled test wells and are gearing up for full scale testing in May in which they will pump water into the aquifer and then collect it later and test it to compare to neighbouring known well water.

While ASR is increasingly common in some areas of the world, including Oregon state, this would only be the second in Canada after one in Ontario.

Squire stresses there isn't a shortage of water in the area, but peak demand in the summer comes during the dry season, creating an issue of when the water is available.

The city's current above ground storage capacity is 8,500 cubic metres and they are hoping for more like a million cubic metres of storage in an ASR system. Above ground storage costs around $400 per cu.m. (1,000 litres), while they hope to do the ASR for about $5 per cu.m.

They also recently completed a full scale test of the two main filtration options and settled on the more modern membrane system over traditional sand and coal filtration with settling chemicals.

Parksville mayor Chris Burger pointed out that while people tend to focus on the capital costs, spending more up front can often save tax payers money over the 20 year operational period they are looking at.

The membrane system is a bit more expensive up front and requires more power, but uses fewer chemicals, produces less water and is cheaper to operate.

Last July a clay bank collapsed into the Englishman River which Parksville uses in the summer when its main well source doesn't meet the higher demand.

Squire said the turbitity caused them to switch back to the wells, which were within hours of not being able to meet the demand which would have meant using the river with a boil water order, which would dramatically affect many of their customers like care homes and restaurants.

"That really highlights the importance of the projects we are currently embarking on," Squire said. "If we had the water treatment plant this wouldn't have been an issue."

The experience also made the proposed ASR all the more attractive, which will essentially add a third source.

"It's always nice to have redundancy, that's why people carry a spare tire," Squire said.

The treatment facility and as many components as possible will be built as small as possible and designed to be easily scaleable for increased needs.

Squire pointed out that some parts, like the river intake, will be built to a 50 year horizon because they don't want to do heavy construction in the river more often than they have to.

There has been some controversy about the annual $32 water-treatment plant surcharge recently added to water bills affecting residential customers disproportionately, but mayor Chris Burger has pointed out that is based on a per-connection fee, not the amount of water used.

Meanwhile as the large projects work their way through the provincial and federal regulations, Squire is cautiously optimistic they are still on track for the 2016 deadline.

While senior governments are supportive and eager to see the results of the project as a pilot for other communities, the added novelty and scrutiny isn't making things move any faster, he said.

For information on the river and regional water system check http://arrowsmithwaterservice.ca.

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