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Calgary’s water crisis is a ‘wake-up call’ for every city in Canada, warn infrastructure experts

Calgary, a city of about 1.6 million people, has been cut off from more than half of its water supply since June 5.

The situation, caused by a major water main break, has plunged the city into a State of Emergency as its residents remain under water-use restrictions expected to last until at least July 5.

All outdoor watering is banned and people have been urged to reduce toilet flushes, take shorter showers and do fewer loads of laundry and dishes. The mayor has encouraged employers to let people work from home, saying it could save people a morning shower and having “to worry about what they look or smell like.”

Some schools have restricted the use of water fountains and are relying on porta-potties, gardeners are collecting rainwater, and city crews have been draining swimming pools to use that water to clean its bridges and for other construction needs.

To quote Mayor Jyoti Gondek, it is both “frustrating” and a “real threat.” Both she and civil engineering and infrastructure experts say that if this can happen in Calgary, it can happen anywhere.

Infrastructure is aging across Canada, and even though cities do a “pretty good job” of trying to manage a huge network of underground pipes, there often aren’t enough resources to repair and replace them as needed, Kerry Black, an associate professor in civil engineering at the University of Calgary, told CBC News. 

“The reality is, we have a huge infrastructure deficit and need a lot of money to repair infrastructure, so something like this could happen in any other city, and in fact, water mains break all the time, just not to this scale,” said Black, who is also the Canada Research Chair in integrated knowledge, engineering and sustainable communities.

“I think every other city realized, based on what happened here, they are just as susceptible.”

WATCH | Canada’s water-infrastructure problem: 

Calgary is part of Canada-wide water infrastructure concerns: engineering prof | Canada Tonight

45 minutes ago

Duration 5:44

Tricia Stadnyk, a civil engineering professor at the University of Calgary, says the water main break in Calgary is part of a larger issue, stressing that ‘it is about 30 per cent of the water infrastructure in Canada that is at or near the end of its service life.’

Most Canadian infrastructure over 20 years old: report

In 2019, a report card compiled by a number of engineering, construction and municipality associations in Canada found that 30 per cent of water infrastructure in Canada — such as water mains and sewers — are in fair, poor or very poor condition. The report noted that a majority of the infrastructure that Canadians rely on every day is more than 20 years old. 

In 2022, Statistics Canada reported that “a significant portion of linear water infrastructure was over 50 years old in 2020.” The agency said that close to one-fifth of water, sewer and stormwater pipes were reaching the end of their useful life since they were built prior to 1970.

“Unlike most public infrastructure, water, sewer and stormwater pipes are hidden underground, making it challenging to assess conditions,” Statistics Canada warned. It also said that 12 per cent of the length of pipes in Canada were in “unknown” condition in 2020.

A girl with buckets full of water around her.
Calgarian Amelia Matthews and her family collect shower water to use in their garden, she recently told CBC Kids. (Submitted by Ashley Wilford-Matthews)

We should be concerned, Matti Siemiatycki, the director of the Infrastructure Institute at the University of Toronto, told CBC’s Front Burner Friday.

“It should be a wake-up call that we need to have plans in place and that we need to have consistent long-term investment,” he said.

Much of the infrastructure in Canada was built in what’s often referred to as the “golden era” of the 1960s and ’70s, Siemiatycki said, during a time of population growth, prosperity and investments. We pulled back in the 1980s and ’90s, mainly for financial reasons, he explained. And now, we’re starting to see the impacts as investment hasn’t kept pace.

Over 60 per cent of the infrastructure in Canada is owned and operated by the municipalities it’s in, but according to Siemiatycki, those municipalities collect only 10 per cent of the revenue.

“So, they’re struggling to figure out how to pay for all of the infrastructure that needs to be kept in a safe, good repair.”

The sentiment was echoed by Carolyn Bolivar-Getson, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, who told CBC Nova Scotia earlier this week that municipalities across the country are struggling to keep up with aging infrastructure and the need to put new pipes in the ground.

She made the comments as city council in Stewiacke, N.S., voted to consider putting a development on hold so it could ensure the town’s water system could handle the growing population.

IN PHOTOS | Crews work to repair Calgary water main:  

‘A wake-up call’

Tricia Stadnyk, a civil engineering professor at the University of Calgary, told CBC News Network last week that the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering has been sounding the alarms about Canada’s water infrastructure for over five years — ever since the 2019 report card, which the society helped compile.

“Absolutely, across Canada, we need to start looking seriously at replacement and sustainability of our infrastructure, and just, quite frankly, funding the replacement of this infrastructure,” Stadnyk said.

In a news conference Friday, Calgary’s mayor said she’s been in contact with other big-city mayors and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to come up with a plan to learn from the city’s experience.

Black, the civil engineering professor, told CBC News that Calgary’s water main break should be alarming, and not just for those involved with infrastructure because they already spend their days trying to avoid and prevent this kind of thing. 

Instead, she said, “it’s more of a wake-up call” for the rest of us. 

“Including every single Canadian who I think really does take for granted where their water comes from.”

WATCH | The latest on Calgary’s water main break: 

Calgary provides update on water main break

1 day ago

Duration 25:45

City officials provide update on major water main break affecting Calgary’s water supply.

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