Salmon fighting their way up the Puntledge River, a challenge with low water levels

THE WEEK: As Puntledge River goes lower, Colorado drinking recycled wastewater

Nov 29, 2022 | Commentary, Latest Feature

By George Le Masurier

This week, it’s all about water. How much do we have? How much are we going to get? And, should we be wasting potential drinking water by flushing it into the Strait of Georgia?

Record low water levels in the Mississippi River, that nation’s most important transportation waterway, have caused ships to run aground and last month backed up 3,000 barges full of corn, soybeans and other goods for export. Further west, the shrinking Colorado River threatens everything from drinking water supplies to California’s agriculture industry that supplies us with winter vegetables and fruit.

It’s a similar story across Europe where the worst drought in 500 years has rivers running dry.

With the amount of rain that falls annually on Vancouver Island, you might think we have an abundance of water and that we’ll never have to worry about a shortage of drinking water. Think again, if this fall’s precipitation levels are any harbinger of the future.

We wrote about low water levels in Comox Lake recently and the situation has not gotten better. It’s gotten worse. The Puntledge River flow is so low now that the BC Hydro powerhouse is no longer operating.

Hydro spokesperson Stephen Watson says that this fall’s drought has broken the company’s 55-year record of continuously generating electricity on the Punteldge River. But thanks to an integrated provincial hydroelectric system, the Comox Valley will have an adequate supply of power.

That means we can still put up Christmas lights, but our fishy friends aren’t quite so lucky. Hydro has deployed fish salvage crews at key parts of the river. If the river flows go any lower, it will expose salmon eggs in the gravel, which is potentially good news but only for seagulls and eagles.

The company has reduced water flow into the river down to 9 cubic meters per second. It has been at 11.5 m3/s, and the minimum fish habitat flow below the powerhouse and fish hatchery is 15.6 m3/s.

“The one positive about having the river flows so low this fall is that salmon, like chum, which typically spawn after Oct. 1, have spawned in areas near the middle of the river versus the entire riverbed, so without latest river flow reduction, those eggs should remain wetted,” Watson wrote in a report this week.

Still not concerned? Watson says the snowpack in the upper Comox Lake Watershed is less than 25 percent of normal for this time of year. This week’s storms will help, but they aren’t expected to return snowpacks to normal.

Is it too soon for the Comox Valley to consider redirecting wastewater into our drinking water supply?

Sounds yucky, right? But several U.S. cities are already extracting water from their sewage treatment plants and sending it directly to people’s kitchen taps. Recently, Colorado became the first state to adopt direct potable reuse regulations.

The Coors Brewing Company may soon have to drop it’s slogan, “Brewed with Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water.” According to an Associated Press report, the 105 West Brewing Company in Castle Rock, CO, is already serving beer made with water from recycled sewage and getting no complaints from customers.

Making wastewater potable involves disinfecting it with ozone gas or ultraviolet light and then “filtering it through membranes with microscopic pores.” And it’s an expensive process, especially if new infrastructure is required.

But it looks like the future. The Associated Press reports that Florida, California and Arizona are considering similar regulations and that other states have direct potable reuse projects underway.





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