How to - Organic Gardening

Water update

More towns and cities are imposing watering bans. Is it time to wean your garden off the tap?

When it comes to water requirements, gardeners are a lot like farmers: not too much, not too little, just the right amount at just the right time. Unfortunately, the skies don't always oblige. So we resort to hooking up the hose or sprinkler, spraying our lawns and gardens with the seemingly limitless water that flows from our taps.

But over the past few years, the myth of endless supply has taken a beating in many Canadian communities, as cities and towns experience water shortages and turn off the taps, imposing restrictions and sometimes outright bans.

It may seem strange that in Canada-a country of abundant lakes-water could be in short supply at certain times of the year, but perhaps it's precisely that sense of abundance that has got us into trouble. We've turned into a country of water wasters, using an average of 340 litres per person per day, according to Environment Canada, one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world. (By comparison, for both Germany and France the rate is 150 litres per person.) As Carole Rubin, author of How to Get Your Lawn Off Grass, puts it, "Clean drinking water is more scarce and precious than gold or oil on our planet these days. So pouring our diminishing supply on ornamental flowers and lawns makes no sense environmentally or morally."

Gardeners may consider their watering needs a small drop in the bucket when compared with the demands of industry but, according to Environment Canada, water use consistently sky-rockets in the summer-up to 40 per cent higher. Hence, many municipa-lities are trying to wean us off the tap.

Drought is one reason more watering restrictions have been implemented in areas of Canada but it's not the only reason. North Battleford, Saskatchewan, has, like most of the Prairies, suffered through three years of severe drought conditions. But even though its municipal water supply comes from wells and the North Saskatchewan River, making it plentiful, a boil-water advisory was enacted in the spring of 2001 because of cryptosporidium contamination in the water supply. Outdoor water use was unaffected by the advisory, which lasted for a few months.

However, the town remains "super vigilant" about its water supply-both its purity and its availability- according to Randy Strelioff, director of Public Works and Engineering.

"It's not that raw water is in short supply," says Strelioff, "it's that the treatment plants have limited production capacity to process and distribute the water." In other words, during extended hot, dry periods, water use outstrips the rate at which storage reservoirs are replenished. "Last summer, essentially we just ran out of treated water," says Strelioff. So in July of 2002, the town tried a voluntary approach to water conservation, instituting an odd/even outdoor water-use program (even-numbered houses were allowed to water on even-numbered dates, odd-numbered houses on odd-numbered dates). As Strelioff puts it, "The program didn't necessarily reduce water use but it did equalize the demand during peak periods, making it easier to manage the distribution system." Compliance was good, which he attributes to the strength of the town's education campaign accompanying the program.

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