March 22nd is World Water Day, when people across the globe take time to consider the value of water for healthy lives, a healthy economy and healthy environment. In the Okanagan we are blessed with both a dry, sunny climate and an abundance of beautiful clean lakes, but we can’t take this natural wealth for granted. With climate change, there is a risk that drought will push us into ‘deficit spending’ of water resources – pumping more water than can be replenished. However, on World Water Day, local residents can celebrate the cities of Vernon and Armstrong, who have taken a leading role in water sustainability by pioneering water re-use in the north Okanagan.
‘Recycled water’ is wastewater that has been treated to remove impurities and most nutrients. Around the world it is used in many ways – from irrigating parks and golf courses, to manufacturing processes. In Israel, as much as 70% of the agricultural crops are irrigated with recycled water. In the Okanagan, agricultural recycled water use is mostly for non-food crops, pastures and commercial nurseries.
The City of Vernon’s Water Reclamation Centre has piped treated, disinfected wastewater to the McKay Reservoir in the Commonage for over 20 years. This water is used from mid-April to late October to irrigate over 2400 acres of land, primarily for hay production, but also to water the greens of Predator Ridge Golf Course and Vernon Golf and Country Club, and to water the trees at the Kalamalka Forestry Centre to name a few.
The City of Armstrong’s program started in 1998 to some skepticism, but has since created a demand that may soon outstrip supply. Thirteen properties now irrigate forage crops with reclaimed water. In the off-season, water is held in a storage reservoir. Although there were initial concerns that salts in the treated water might build up in the soil, careful monitoring by the City of Armstrong along with good management has laid this worry to rest. Farmers are happy with the program because the treated wastewater can provide 40-50% of fertilizer needs, saving additional expense. As a result of the program’s success, the latest concern isn’t how to get farmers to sign up for using recycled water; it’s that the City of Armstrong might not have enough of it for the 1068 acres currently irrigated. “With growing seasons getting longer and hotter, water use is increasing, creating strain on our system” says Terry Langlois, City of Armstrong Water Technologist.
By recycling water, cities make best use of fresh water supplies. Both communities report that 100% of the wastewater is consumed through these programs, resulting in zero discharge from the plants. As Langlois says, “Before we started this program all of our treated wastewater was pumped into Deep Creek, but as of 1998 we have not had to discharge once into Deep Creek.” The south Okanagan also has a number of successful re-use programs, and the Summerland agricultural research station (PARC) is considering a new research program aimed at expanding the use of recycled water for other crops.