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Turning on the tapsMost people took one of Whistler's greatest assets for granted, until Walkerton

By G.D. Maxwell The list of things Whistler doesn't have is mercifully short if you don't let yourself get too caught up in the details. We don't have enough high paying jobs, at least not compared to the cost of living. We don't have a library with enough space for the numbers of people who use it. We don't have "culture", if by culture you mean something that doesn't involve sports. We don't have sidewalks in our neighbourhoods. And we could use a few less bright lights in the village and a couple more streetlights where people walk along the roads that have no sidewalks. We don't have a good solution for people who use public transit and have to take their garbage to our inadequate compactor sites. But topping the list of things we don't have, and for which we should all be truly thankful, we don't have horribly polluting industry. We don't have cattle ranches. We don't have feedlots. We don't have pig farms. We don't have agriculture. In it's absence, we do have good water. Whistler has wonderful water. It's cold and sweet and refreshing. It has a complex, natural taste owing to the minerals it picks up on its way from snow and ice and rain and meltwater as it percolates and cascades through our watersheds. It's the water that brews Whistler Beer and the water that U-Brews my cider. It may be the best water in Canada, or that may just be chauvinistic pride speaking. Regardless, I know I'm not the only person who tanks up as much of it as he can whenever he hits the road and travels toward places where tap water invokes not delight but second thoughts. Which is to say most of the rest of the country. But is it safe? Water safety is a question across Canada in the wake of the deaths of perhaps 11 people in Walkerton, Ontario, from a particularly nasty strain of E. coli. As more of the evidence is pieced together, a picture is developing of the complex interplay of dangers when high concentrations of agribusiness meet laissez faire governmental safeguards and inept public employees. The most reasonable scenario coming out of Walkerton is that massive amounts of animal wastes - bovine and porcine - being produced at cattle and hog operations are being inadequately treated in an environment where industry "polices" itself. To put the volume of waste into some kind of perspective, just one of the cattle feedlots operating nearby is estimated to produce the sewage of a town of 30,000. Torrential rainfall over a couple of days in mid May flushed this waste rapidly into the town's groundwater supplies. A sensing valve at one of the pumping stations that probably should have shut the pumps down in the wake of such increased turbidity failed. Water containing E. coli O157:H7 - one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli - was pumped into the municipal network. Water tested at a private lab at that time was found to contain E. coli. Someone at the Public Utilities Commission, notified by the lab, dropped the ball. People drank the water. The shit hit the fan. Doctors became very busy. Then undertakers. Now, police and lawyers. While generally associated with death and disease, E. coli, in its many strains, actually lives in the intestines of healthy humans and animals. It is a type of fecal coliform - a bacteria - associated with the transformation of food bulk to waste. Most of the strains of E. coli are benign but several, including O157:H7 produce a powerful toxin and cause severe illness when ingested. While it's been around as long as mammals, the first illness actually traced to the O157:H7 variant of E. coli was cause by an outbreak in 1982 traced to contaminated hamburgers, and most E. coli infections are still the result of eating undercooked ground beef. Sloppy slaughtering and processing methods - in the name of efficiency and cost control - have made overcooked hamburgers a way of life. I can't have it my way anymore. But the real threat is a case like Walkerton, where a dangerous strain gets into the water supply. The 11 people who are suspected of dying of infection caused by E. coli have to be put into perspective: annual deaths in the United States from E. coli run around 61. Clearly this was a virulent and widespread case of contamination. But Whistler is not Walkerton. What are the risks to our water supply? Where does our water come from? How is it treated? Nelson Bastien is the municipality's utilities foreman. It's his job to see the water keeps flowing, both into and away from your home and business. He and his crew keep the reservoirs, treatment facilities, mains and sewers of Whistler working night and day. Probably 80 per cent of their time is spent making sure there's a good supply of clean drinking water every time you turn on a tap. A couple of years ago, and again this week, I was fortunate enough to catch him in his office and get him talking about Whistler water. The first time Nelson explained Whistler's water to me, he unrolled a substantial set of blueprints that looked a lot like a sorcerer's maze and started pointing and talking as though I knew exactly what he was saying. "The first thing you have to realize is the municipal water system isn't one system. There are actually several systems. And for the most part, each of these isn't just one system but a blend of gravity feed (surface) water and well water. "The main water supply comes from 21 Mile Creek. That system supplies probably 75 per cent of the town's water. Alpine and Emerald have their own systems and the Blackcomb system supplies the Benchlands and also interconnects to the main system." Looking at the blueprints and listening to Nelson explain what was clearly obvious to him, made me realize I was going to have to get out and see things first hand to begin to grasp what was going on. So a couple of days later, I climbed into the passenger side of a green muni pickup and accompanied Jen James on a tour of Whistler's water supply. Jen's worked with the muni seasonally for a couple of years now, having finished a course of study on water quality at college. A short drive up a gated road above the peaceful confines of Whistler's cemetery we arrived at an unassuming little building. "This is the 21 Mile treatment facility," Jen explained. We walked about a hundred metres upstream where a large concrete weir had been constructed across the creek, just below a small, raging waterfall and just above another. "The weir creates a calmer back eddy of water at the supply intake," she said, lifting an access cover. Through a grate on the stream side, water flowed into a concrete chamber - the mouth of the system - and into a screened supply pipe large enough for a person to crawl through. The calmer water and the screen filter out big rocks and small bodies and delivers an abundant flow of water for treatment. Inside the treatment building, the flow of water is further calmed and directed through concrete baffles with large, finer screens. Excess flow is channelled back into 21 Mile Creek while screened water is chlorinated and fed into the municipal system. Chlorine gas is used to treat surface water in all the municipal ground water systems except Emerald where liquid chlorine - a bleach drip - is used. Prominent warnings of the skull-and-crossbones type are posted in noticeable places. Chlorine gas is highly toxic, heavier than air, and expands in volume some 700 times once it comes into contact with air. Despite the potential danger, chlorine systems are safe and are the most common method of disinfecting water used in North America since the early 1900s. Chlorine is known to be effective against bacteria, requires short to moderate contact time, and, unlike some of the other methods, a simple test exists to measure its effectiveness. When chlorine is added to water, several things occur. Almost immediately, inorganic materials such as dissolved iron and manganese are oxidized and converted to insoluble forms. Many organic contaminants in the water are also oxidized and chlorine can effectively treat biological pathogens like coliform bacteria and legionella, though it is ineffective against hard-shelled cysts like those produced by Cryptosporidium. Chlorination also treats for organically-related taste, colour, and odour problems. "Once a week, we test for coliform - E. coli - and other contaminants," Jen explained. "But the supply is pretty clean to start with and the concentrations of chlorine we use, about 3 parts per million, is low compared to other water systems." Samples from 21 Mile Creek and the other municipal supply points are sent to the Environmental Health Protection branch of Coast Garibaldi Community Health Services for testing. From the treatment building, water flows down to West Side Road, under Alta Lake and feeds the main distribution system. If you stand outside the treatment building and sight across the valley to the flanks of Whistler Mountain's Lower Olympic run, you will see a large reservoir. The Olympic reservoir is a 500,000 gallon cylinder and, under perfect conditions, water would flow from where you were standing, under the lake, through the village, up the hill, into the reservoir, and run out of steam right at its top, in perfect hydrostatic balance. Of course, the intervention of one golf course, a couple dozen hotels, automatic sprinkler systems that run even during rainstorms, several thousand users and a couple of dripping faucets, siphons enough water out of the flow to mean the reservoir doesn't usually fill from this source alone. To supplement surface water flowing from 21 Mile Creek, there are wells located several places in the valley. Water is pumped from the wells into the distribution system and/or into storage at Oly and other reservoirs. "The well water is perfect," Nelson had explained earlier. "The wells tap water 60 to 100 feet below the surface and the water we pump out of them is perfect. It goes into the system untreated. Of course, it's much more expensive to pump water out of the ground than it is to collect it and treat it by means of the gravity (surface) systems." There are three wells and one pumping station in the Day Skier parking lots. They and another well, located near the Creekside base of Whistler Mountain, supplement water coursing down 21 Mile Creek, blending with it to provide water for the bulk of Whistler's residents and visitors. While 21 Mile Creek has sufficient year-round flow to provide all the water we need, it can't always be relied on. It is in fact ironic that the embarrassment of water falling often from the sky shuts down the surface systems. "When it rains too much there's too much turbidity in the water. It triggers an alarm and we have to shut down the system," said Nelson. Turbidity is caused by small particles of solid matter - pine needles, leaves, soil from runoff - suspended in water and is measured by the amount of scattering and absorption of light rays caused by the particles. Turbidity blocks light rays, and makes the water cloudy, or even opaque in extreme cases. Turbidity is measured in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU). Potable water should not exceed 0.5 NTU, the set-point for an alarm. The factors that would generate a rise in turbidity would also increase the risk of E. coli getting into the water. Throughout Whistler's surface water watersheds, animals roam. Bears, cougars, coyotes, marmot, beaver, man and dog. A heavy rain can flush the waste into 21 Mile Creek and other feeder streams before it can break down. "We've had the odd total coliforms come back (from testing) too high and had to increase our chlorine dosage," Nelson said. "We're not sure whether we had a failure in a valve that let some turbid water get through or whether the shutoff was slow to react." The count was an aberration and a redundant pump system is currently being installed, requiring a double failure for contaminated water to get into the system. Obviously, nothing can be done about the bears, cougars, et.al., but one has to question just how wise it is to continue to tolerate 10,000+ hikers in the town's primary watershed every year. Although the municipality has placed educational signs at the trailhead to Rainbow Lake, relocated parts of the trail further away from the creek, installed pit toilets below the water treatment building and up at the lake, and, believe it or not, forbidden dogs on the trail, there is still, unquestionably, considerable effluent added as a result of people hiking up to the lake. Is the risk, worth it? It's a question only time - or an episode of contamination - will resolve. Interfaced with the main supply system is a seasonal system on Blackcomb. Water is taken from Blackcomb Creek and stored in a half-million gallon reservoir. A new reservoir of the same size, above Lost Lake, provides additional storage. Because of turbidity associated with higher temperatures and increased runoff, this system shuts down in late spring or early summer, coming back on-line in the fall. During the summer, the system works a bit in reverse to provide ample supplies of water to the Benchlands. Water is pumped from the main wells and out of the system if available, and stored in the Lost Lake reservoir. This water is, in turn, pumped up into the higher Blackcomb reservoir, ensuring sufficient water to meet normal demand and emergencies such as fires. By contrast, the water systems in Alpine and Emerald are a piece of cake. The Alpine design is similar to 21 Mile Creek. Two concrete flumes tap water in 19 Mile Creek, treat it with chlorine gas, and store it in a 55,000 gallon reservoir at the treatment site. The water flows downhill, feeds the subdivision, and I get coffee in the morning. Simple. Two wells - one just off the driveway into the high school, the other a bit further north - pump water into a 150,000 gallon reservoir nearby and backstop the gravity system. "Alpine's got the best system in the valley," Nelson had remarked. "It doesn't give us much trouble and it provides very high quality water." Domestic water in Emerald is provided by a different setup. Behind a chain link fence, a pastoral pond of maybe an acre and a half sits placidly in the sun. Near its east end, some 20 feet inside the fence, you can make out a blurred shape of a grate, lying in shallow water. A supply pipe beneath the grate brings water into a small treatment building where a bleach drip system adds a metered amount of chlorine to treat the water before storing it in a 10,000 gallon reservoir. Because of the small size of the reservoir, the surface system at Emerald isn't capable of supplying water throughout the year. A larger reservoir is in the works but until it's built, water from a shallow well and a second well just being finished supplements the gravity system during summer and whenever the surface water is too turbid. "We'll get a few calls each year when we switch off the well and back onto the gravity system," Nelson told me. "All of a sudden, people can taste the chlorine and call up to find out what's going on." People in Function Junction never taste chlorine. In geological time, a combination of water flow, elevation drop, alluvial deposits, bedrock formation and an intervening impervious layer, was formed in just the right structure to create a hydrologic gem: a rapidly recharging, easily accessible aquifer of rare purity. A 100 foot well pumps that water right off the bedrock and delivers it to the residents and businesses of Function Junction. Van West Water Utilities is owned by Jon Perrett, who, in the early '80's, developed Function, subdivided the land and put in the roads. While Function was turned over to the Municipality eventually, Jon kept the water system. His main well, with a 500 gallon per minute flow, feeds the needs of Function. It also plays a starring role in several well-known bottled water containers. Just the way it comes from the ground. Just the way it comes from the tap in Function. "Twice a year, I have the water thoroughly tested," Jon told me. "It's run through a series of very expensive tests to measure quality. The water down here exceeds Japanese water standards which are extremely stringent." In addition to Function, Van West also provides water to Alpha Lake Village, Tamarisk, Bayshores and Twin Lakes. The private system there taps Alpha Creek, treats the water with a bleach drip, and stores it in a 200,000 gallon reservoir for distribution. With water quality in the valley ranging from excellent to incredible, what's the outlook for the future? With our current population of residents and visitors, Whistler's peak water usage is about 24 million gallons per week. Low usage weeks might run 11 million gallons. Gravity systems meet about 85 per cent of that amount with the balance coming from wells, including a new well just drilled at Function to supply water to the new community being built at Spring Creek. As for risks, torrential rains, wildlife, hikers in the watershed and potential mechanical breakdowns are about the extent of it. With the likelihood of intensive logging in Whistler's watersheds unlikely, our outlook for the future is pretty good. So for the time being, if you're living or playing in Whistler, you've got a commodity at your fingertips that is unknown in many parts of the world and increasingly rare in many more. Fresh, pure, good-tasting water. So drink up, straight from the tap, or, if you must, fill up your bottled-water bottle and pretend you paid a lot for your favourite refreshment.