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The quality of your tap water may be affected by aging water pipes

Vernon has a history of water main breaks, including this one dating back to 2015.
Image Credit: FILE PHOTO
November 16, 2018 - 6:30 PM

The biggest concern most people have about their tap water is whether it tastes good.

But that may be no indication of whether it’s actually safe to drink or how much it will cost to replace the aging pipes sending them their water.

“When you ask, what’s your number one concern for your water system, believe it or not, it’s often: does it taste good?” Ivor Norlin, manager of Drinking Water Systems for Interior Health, told

Taste, odour and clarity may be top of mind for consumers but that’s not Norlin’s focus.

“We’re a public health agency,” he noted. “We’re there to insure people aren’t getting sick or at risk of getting sick.”

In recent years that has meant ensuring the water flowing into the water pipes is filtered, chlorinated or otherwise treated to make it safe to drink.

That focus may shift to the deteriorating underground pipes, with the Greater Vernon Water Utility possibly being most at risk. With more than 650 kilometres of pipes, it has one of the longest networks in B.C. and it has a history of water main breaks as its system ages.

But it’s not unique.

“Throughout the developed world, there’s a great deal of concern over those pipes in the ground, and whether or not there’s been appropriate ongoing investment and oversight of that infrastructure because it breaks down over time,” Norlin said.

In past decades there have been tens of millions of dollars poured into water treatment plants to meet drinking water standards. In some cases, that required more than persuasion, such as Kamloops in the late 1990s.

“That was a very good example of the application of progressive compliance,” Norlin said. “In that case, it did make sense to move forward with some orders against the city. They had a choice. They could have taken that to court but they ultimately decided to just comply with the order.”

Now, Kamloops is cited as a “Success Story” in Interior Health’s 2017 report on drinking water.

The provision of water is different in every community in the Interior Health region with more than 1,900 separate water providers, ranging from wells to roadside restaurants, to large improvement districts and municipal services.

Each has its unique history, Norlin noted, pointing out that some are fortunate to have good, clean water supplies and people who made good decisions decades ago.

“The City of Penticton has been ahead of the curve in that they’ve got filtration plants in place, and they have two different water sources,” Norlin said. “Their circumstance and forethought helped.”

Vernon, on the other hand, faced bigger challengers with multiple water providers in years past.

“One of the things that’s different for them, as compared to Kelowna, for example, is that they, in cooperation with the regional district and the District of Coldstream, worked together to actually provide a regional water service,” Norlin said.

That brought together a number of improvement districts in the 1990s resulting in the creation of the Greater Vernon Water Utility in 2003.

“The challenge at the time was taking over these systems that were probably never designed to do what they were being asked to do,” Norlin said, noting that many water supplies were originally for agriculture and not designed to meet today’s water quality standards.

“We’re saying they (Vernon) do need to improve and they do want to improve,” he said. “They have to decide on the right path and, of course, it has to go to referendum. The people have to have their say. But they’ve made huge improvements. They’ve got a real good solid plan in place.”

Kelowna is different again, with the City of Kelowna being the main supplier along with, until recently, four large improvement districts serving most of the city (with a number of smaller providers).

The South East Kelowna Irrigation District was the smallest in terms of customers of those four but served the largest geographic area, mostly made up of orchards. It was taken over by the City of Kelowna and there is a $90 million construction project underway to separate irrigation and drinking water.

The other three irrigation districts in Kelowna are content to remain independent and have made millions of dollars worth of improvements in recent years, although a boil water advisory was recently issued for one part of the Glenmore-Ellison Improvement District for customers getting water from Mill Creek.

While such advisories are unusual these days with the larger water suppliers, there are currently almost 500 active advisories in the Interior Health region. Those range from Water Quality Advisories through Boil Water Notices up to Do Not Use warnings. Most advisories are on very small systems and last for a short period of time but some have been in place for decades.

The water systems affected by water advisories can be viewed here on the Interior Health website.

The various water suppliers that have plans in place deal mostly with the issues of treatment and filtration, and others are moving to separate domestic and agricultural systems as irrigation water does not need expensive treatment.

But, Norlin noted, attention needs to be paid to the pipes in the ground.

Originally those were wood stave pipes. Then water suppliers went to asbestos concrete pipes – some of which are still in use – to steel and now to PVC and vinyl.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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