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Last week I attended the 7th annual Canadian Water Summit, a day-long event bringing together water leaders from government, industry, non-profit organizations and academia. Held June 23, 2016, in Toronto under the theme “The Business of Water—Innovation Across the Entire Life Cycle,” this year’s edition focused on best practices in water innovation and the latest trends in managing water-related risks.

In a keynote address, Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, talked about how, in Canada, we tend to take water for granted. “No one here was surprised when they turned on the tap this morning and clean water came out,” he said. Yet the sad reality is that nearly all of Canada’s once pristine lakes and rivers are now polluted.

On this topic, Ontario recently passed the Great Lakes Protection Act, which aims to strengthen the province’s ability to keep the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River clean, as well as to protect and restore the waterways that flow into them.

Murray referred to climate change and environmental problems as “a cultural problem.” The Indigenous people have treaties with nature, he explained: they consider all of nature’s creatures of equal importance, and they consider water sacred. “Can you imagine if we started treating water as sacred?” he asked. Instead, decisions are made according to four-year election or business cycles. We need to evolve not just in terms of technology: “We need to advance our culture to be sophisticated enough to live on this planet.”

Water tech challenges

Among other things, Summit panelists and participants discussed the challenges of introducing new technologies in the water sector: for example, no municipality wants to take the risk of being the first to implement a new wastewater or drinking water treatment technology. As well, procurement policies often require going with the lowest bidder but may not take into account full life-cycle costs or environmental impacts; moreover, when preparing specifications for calls for tender, engineers tend to go with the technologies they know.

The Summit also looked at how water issues affect businesses, and offered a glimpse into the fascinating ways in which some companies are reducing their water use, using rainwater or grey water, or recycling their wastewater—often generating substantial dollar savings in the process.

In a session titled “The Big Picture: Engaging water users in a conversation about sustainable water use,” Matt Howard, Director of the Alliance for Water Stewardship–North America, explained that no one is immune from water risks. The issue is not always scarcity; it may be regulatory, or quality—he pointed to recent examples of toxic algae in Lake Erie (causing Toledo, Ohio, to declare a state of emergency in 2014) and the fiasco in Flint, Michigan, both within the Great Lakes basin.

“We need to move beyond the fact that we have abundant supply of inexpensive water,” he stated. He noted that in a survey on global risks, businesses ranked water as third most important in terms of impact, and second in terms of likelihood.

Jonathan Radtke is the Water Sustainability Program Director for Coca-Cola North America. The company is present in nearly every country in the world. Their number one ingredient: water.

The company has a multi-component water strategy, which includes making sure its plant is efficient and discharges clean wastewater, working on these same issues with suppliers, and collaborating on projects with municipalities and communities worldwide.

What I found most interesting, however, was its “replenish” strategy. “Our goal is return to nature and communities the same amount of water that we use in our products and production process,” explained Radtke, “that is, to be water neutral by 2020.”

This is being done through a number of projects and partnerships, from donating its syrup barrels for use as rain barrels to supporting wetland restoration projects. Recent Canadian projects include funding to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to support four conservation projects in Alberta’s Bow River Watershed, and funding to support the Tommy Thompson Wetland Park in Toronto. Here in Quebec, in 2012, the company pledged $250,000 to restore the damaged St-Eugène marsh and help improve the natural flow in the St. Lawrence River.

Circular systems

Canada has much to learn from other countries, too. Alex van der Helm is with Waternet, the public water utility of Amsterdam. With its dense population and nearly half of the country below sea level, the Netherlands has become renowned for its water technology expertise.

Van der Helm described a number of sustainable initiatives they’ve adopted, adding that Amsterdam’s ambition is to become climate neutral, “the circular city of Europe,” by 2020. He touched on concepts such as circular water and energy systems, aquifer thermal energy storage (ATES), and capturing heat from showers. “Forty percent of total energy losses come from warm wastewater leaving houses,” he noted.

In a panel on “The Value of Water: Overcoming Challenges to Innovation in the Water Industry,” Bruce Taylor, President of Enviro-Stewards, gave numerous examples of how his consulting firm has helped large companies reduce their water and energy consumption.

In one case, a food manufacturer was using tremendous quantities of water to dilute the fat waste going down the drain. By recovering and transforming this fat into lard that could be sold, the company reduced the fat going down the drain (good for the municipal wastewater system, where Fats, Oils and Greases, a.k.a. FOGs, are a huge problem), reduced its water requirement (water fees are rapidly increasing), and now generates some additional revenue by selling the lard.

A few years ago, Enviro-Stewards designed a project for the City of Guelph to harvest rainwater to wash its buses. Not only does this save water, but it reduces the amount of chemicals used for removing calcium spots, for example.

These were just a few of the many projects mentioned, offering an inspiring glimpse into the world of water technology and innovation.

About the Canadian Water Summit

 

 “Treat our freshwater as a precious resource that deserves protection and careful stewardship, including by working with other orders of government to protect Canada’s freshwater using education, geo-mapping, watershed protection, and investments in the best wastewater treatment technologies.” Excerpt from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Mandate Letter to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

 

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On a recent family trip to Burlington, Vermont — originally intended for pleasure only and not for writing or professional purposes — I was pleasantly surprised by how “green” this city appeared to be.

Walking up the street our first afternoon, I noticed a bus pulling up to a stop, a passenger getting off the bus — and then the passenger unhooking his bicycle from a rack attached to the front of the bus. The cyclist and the bus then each carried on their respective merry ways.

It turns out that all buses run by the Chittenden County Transportation Authority “are equipped with easy to use bike racks, which hold two bikes. Each bike is held securely by a spring-loaded clamp.” (Source: CCTA website. Check out their photos.) Granted, this is probably not feasible on most routes in a large city such as Montreal, but it still offers food for thought.

The next morning, when we got up and looked out our 8th floor hotel window, we were greeted by another surprise: a huge array of solar panels had popped up on top of the roof of the building across the street. We hadn’t noticed them the previous afternoon, so I suspect they are deployed to follow the sun. It reminded me of those images of solar panels unfolding from satellites or spacecraft.

An ECHO animal care specialist shows us the turtle's flexible shell. (Photo: Eve Krakow)

After breakfast, we visited the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Centre. I’d heard it was a great place for kids, with hands-on exhibits — for example, you can touch a starfish. But while the exhibits are definitely kid-oriented, the centre is interesting for adults too, because it’s part of the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain — a 2.2 acre environmental campus on the Burlington Waterfront that is home to a consortium of science, environmental education, research, and cultural history organizations.

We arrived just in time for a demonstration with some baby Spiny Softshell turtles. This species is considered threatened not just in Vermont, but also in Canada. For the past few years, the centre has been gathering these turtles soon after they’re born, caring for them, and releasing them in the spring, when they are big enough to be less vulnerable to both natural predators and human impacts. (Read more: ECHO Lake Aquarium welcomes 26 spiny softshell turtles.)

After the aquarium, we headed to the Vermont Pub & Brewery for lunch. One of the dishes we ordered came with several wedges of Vermont cheddar, but because we’d ordered more than we could eat, we asked if we could take them home with us. The waitress promptly returned with a container — and it was NOT made of Styrofoam. Although I didn’t ask, it looked compostable, perhaps made of sugar-cane fibre (like the cartons used here in Montreal by Burritoville).

It’s always interesting to see, first-hand, what other cities are doing to help protect the environment. My short visit to Burlington was both encouraging and inspiring.

The baby spiny softshells will be released back into the wild once they are big enough to withstand most predators. (Photo: Eve Krakow)

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