For the second time in three years, Dartmouth residents served by Halifax Water have faced autumn water restrictions on its use. Drinking water is like any other utility service – you just expect it to be there when you need it, so to have that be compromised in two out of three years is a pretty big deal, even if it wasn’t a stringent restriction – in this instance, prohibiting outside uses like watering of plants and washing cars. In my case, a week prior to the restrictions being imposed I had begun to rehab a section of lawn in my yard that I had resisted watering all summer, so that work now will need to be redone come spring, making me annoyed. Unsatisfied with the answers I got from Halifax Water and my Councillor, I dug deeper. The more I dug, the more concerned I became.
I am not an engineer, nor am I any kind of expert on water utilities. As I was preparing to write this piece, I remembered the classic closing statement by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick at his press conference prior to the Super Bowl in January of 2015 regarding the charges that staff from his team had intentionally deflated the footballs used in the AFC Championship game. It fits well here too, just change the word “football” to “drinking water”:
“I just want to share with you what I’ve learned over the past week. I’m embarrassed to talk about the amount of time that I put into this relative to the other important challenge in front of us. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an expert in footballs; I’m not an expert in football measurements. I’m just telling you what I know. I would not say that I’m Mona Lisa Vito of the football world, as she was in the car expertise area, alright?”
I only wish I could deliver this in the dour, frustrated but unintentionally hilarious way that Belichick did with his.
In September of 2016 Halifax Water imposed restrictions on Dartmouth customers because Lake Major was “critically low”. Checking their Twitter account from that time, the only thing they used to explain that were a few pictures of water levels at the dam by Lake Major Road. Over a month later and after significant rainfall, they posted a picture of water flowing over the dam and lifted the restrictions.
This time, they imposed restrictions on September 10th – curiously, less than a month after responding to a query from a Twitter user asking if she should use her sprinklers and giving her the all-clear. In both instances, I could see no public announcement of any advisories beforehand saying that levels were dropping and giving some warning that conservation then might avoid restrictions later. Nor was their much clarity in their responses to questions about how much rainfall would be needed to eliminate the restrictions. They either didn’t know, or were not inclined to share. All in all, in both years, not a shining example of communications.
Being the curious person that I am, I looked deeper. I asked HW about the Lake Major Dam which was in the process of being replaced and which they had said would help control lake levels better once the new one was completed. They said that would not be ready until March of next year. I also asked about the pipeline across the Macdonald Bridge which was tested a few times earlier this year after being re-comissioned, and was told it was out of service due to pumping station upgrades. So both insurance policies for Dartmouth ratepayers were essentially down simultaneously, not a good situation.
I then asked Sam Austin, my Council member and someone I consider a good Councillor, what was going on. Sam quickly responded that with only 38% of normal rainfall such restrictions were understandable. Now, I don’t know for sure where that number came from, but it was clearly wrong. I had looked into rainfall statistics for this year and at Halifax International Airport our cumulative rainfall was actually above historical YTD averages. Now I concede there is some variability in rainfall from location to location, and at Shearwater the numbers were not quite so rosy, but still not particularly drought-like. And after all, a reservoir is intended to provide a reserve supply, hence the name. Plus, there were no restrictions whatsoever on the other side of the harbour, so perhaps the weather wasn’t so dry after all. The mystery deepened.
I also asked Sam about Lake Lemont, the emergency backup which is the lake immediately adjacent to Main Street across from Dave’s Fruit and Vegetable in Dartmouth that you see when you drive through Westphal, and which was the old Dartmouth Water Supply prior to Lake Major coming online. He obviously made some inquiries and again got back to me quickly. I learned something that I didn’t know, that if it ever gets to the point that we need to use that, it brings with it a boil-water warning. Why I do not know, but there it is. Anyway, between that, the dam project and the pipeline, it was three strikes and you’re out if you live in Dartmouth.
Now more curious than ever, I did some more digging. I drove out to look at the work on the Lake Major dam replacement. There was clearly work underway, but it certainly wasn’t a beehive of activity. In fact all I saw was one vehicle and some pumps working away. Not the kind of urgency I would have expected.
With more questions than answers, I dove into the Halifax Water website. I found there is a Lake Major Watershed Advisory Committee, whose Terms of Reference start with:
“The Board will review and make recommendations in a timely manner, to the Minister of Environment and Halifax Water, on all activities or policy issues affecting the water quality, flows, levels, storm water, development and forest management in the Lake Major Watershed, as requested by Halifax Water, the Province of Nova Scotia, stakeholders and communities in the area.”
That sounded promising, so I looked at their meeting notes and was quickly disabused of the notion that they might be on top of this. They have trouble obtaining a quorum, the Chair is often not in attendance, and all in all it seemed like a Committee that needs a shot in the arm to either revitalize it or put it out of its misery. So I pressed on.
I then went to the Halifax Water Board of Commissioners meeting site. The Board has three citizen representatives along with four Council members plus the CAO and Mayor. To their credit, Halifax Water posts the full Board packages from each meeting online. Here I learned a great deal.
In the October 2016 Board package there is an information report about that year’s water restrictions. On October 9th of that year, Lake Major reached a historic low water level of 18.28 meters – still plenty of water obviously, but low enough to cause concern about reaching the level of the pumping station criticality of 17.8 meters. Because I am not an engineer I do not know why those intakes are located where they are, seemingly near the surface of the lake. The report states that 1 meter of height in the lake is worth about 3 months of supply in the absence of precipitation. I also learned that NS Environment requires Halifax Water to pump or siphon 4 cubic feet of water per second over the dam into Little Salmon River, presumably for fish habitat. That seems like a lot of water.
There was also a reference in the September meeting minutes to this, one of the few items I spotted in any of the minutes where a Board member raising a question was referenced – most of the minutes are very formal, short-back-and-sides in tone with little indication that Commissioners say much of anything. But here we have this:
6-I WATER SUPPLY LAKE LEVELS
Carl Yates gave a brief overview of the lake levels. Lake Major has been impacted the greatest by lack of rain and, as a result, on September 19, 2016, water conservation measures were implemented. The residents that are connected to the Lake Major water supply have responded in a positive way and demand has decreased. A formal submission to Nova Scotia Environment is being prepared that will include a contingency plan should this situation occur again.
The Chair suggested that updates on this situation be provided to the Board on a weekly basis.
I’m unsure if the contingency plan mentioned is for the fish habitat or the Dartmouth residents – hopefully the latter. Given that we are in the same situation two years later I do wonder if it ever happened. In any event, good for the Chair to ask for some communication.
In looking at all of the other minutes and Board packages on the site, that was the only reference I could find to capacity issues. There was mention of a proposed low lift pumping station project that would move water from Lake Lemont to Lake Major, but that seems to have not proceeded. Perhaps a big reason for that is quite possibly the most astounding thing I found in all of that information – that for the last 15 years, water consumption has been dropping by an average of over 2% per year. That’s not per household or per capita, but overall. I had no idea. Despite all the growth in HRM over that time, water use is consistently down. No wonder HW is more concerned about water quality than quantity. I guess all of those water-saving toilets and low-flow showerheads have had an impact. Which is great, except that with all that, those of us in Dartmouth are still experiencing water restrictions. Where would we be without those things?
As an aside, I would hate to be a Commissioner on that Board, if only for the avalanche of information that seems to land on top of them in every meeting. Quarterly pension plan reports (why?), endless financial, capital project, and operational minutiae, highly detailed and lengthy Corporate Balanced Scorecard updates, very technical engineering reports, it goes on and on and just seems both far too detailed and absolutely mind-numbing for a Board. As someone who was responsible for this sort of thing for the last decade of my work life, it is really quite awful to expect Commissioners to be able to absorb all of that, much less understand it. Do they really need to know about $1,300 capital purchases? That level of detail is for managers and executives, not Commissioners. That perhaps reflects the culture of the organization, being driven by accountants and engineers. Being good with detail is important for those professions, but not so much for people coming from other backgrounds, Commissioners who come to meetings 4 or 5 times a year, or the public at large.
So with all of this, where are we? It is raining today and is supposed to rain even more tomorrow, so I expect the restrictions will soon be over. But that does not change the reality that Dartmouth’s water supply has been shown to be quite fragile in recent years. The new dam, which apparently was originally supposed to be complete in March 2018 but was pushed back a year, gives an additional 0.5 meter of depth which should help somewhat, but from what I can tell that is only about a 6-week cushion. That low-lift pumping station to move water into Lake Major could also help if it was undertaken. Hopefully it will be. The pumping station for the bridge pipeline needs to be made operational ASAP. In the shorter term, the real issue here is communication.
Halifax Water recognized that they had a communications issue a couple of years ago, and engaged the agency Revolve to help them out. The result of that was, among other things, the bus placard ad shown at the top of the page, which someone must have thought seemed like a good idea at the time. They apparently were not well-received by the public and didn’t stay around for very long.
But that kind of reputational communication is very different from day to day communications, be it in the news or on social media. The way HW interacts with the public in those areas seems very formal and rigid. Again, I think that is probably the culture of the organization being reflected to some extent in how they communicate. But you can’t talk down to people, issue surprise decrees, or provide carefully crafted, canned responses and expect to do well at communicating to the public. That, unfortunately, is all too often how HW comes across. If Dartmouth citizens had some advance notice that reservoir levels were dropping earlier in the summer, maybe we could have behaved differently to help avoid the restrictions. If we had a more fulsome explanation as to why things were challenging at Lake Major and what HW was doing about it, maybe the restrictions would have been easier to swallow other than just saying “it’s on you to conserve”. And just maybe, Halifax Water could have taken a little bit of responsibility for not having the things that would have helped mitigate low lake levels, caused for whatever reason, already in place. This is not about assigning blame, but about communicating credibly and effectively. That is something they just don’t seem to be good at doing.