Every now and then I’m asked—in public, mind you—for a little “crystal-balling.”

What’s going to happen with this issue?  Who’s going to win that campaign?  What’ll happen here?  How’s it going to shake out there?  If there’s one Q&A or media query that I hate, it’s being asked to make “the prediction.”  I’m not very good at it and have a pretty lousy track record.  That’s also why I’m a “policy wonk” and not a “political pundit.”

One vision of the future that I’ve heard—not made but heard—is that water will be the biggest global policy issue of the 21st century.  Hyperbole?  Maybe.  Perhaps.  I don’t really know.

What I do know is that parts of western Canada certainly have their fair share of water stresses and strains, and more threats are floating our way.  I also know that the West is not alone here, whether one points to the decade-long drought in Australia or chronic water shortages in the American southwest.  And, I also know that the historical policy response—the large-scale supply option or water “mega” project—has to paddle a lot harder these days given both the cost and the potential environmental impact.

But while there is growing suspicion about the benefits of large-scale water supply solutions, the same does not hold when considering small-scale innovations, many of which are highly dependent on new research and technology only now emerging.  What’s more, a lot of this ground-breaking technology is being developed, produced, tested, and installed right in the West’s own backyard.

What follows is a list of some of the more interesting innovations that I’ve run across in the West—technologies and products that are designed to develop alternative sources of fresh water, purify water on a small-scale, and treat, recycle, and reuse wastewater and effluents.  While the list is quite diverse, they all share at least one similarity—foregoing the “big centralized” option with the “small decentralized” solution fueled by technology.

Small-Scale Self-Supply and Alternative Sources

Alternative water sources replace traditional surface water, groundwater, and municipal supply with water of a lower quality or water from a different source, oftentimes on a small-scale or individualized basis.  One such practice—and one growing in popularity—is “rainwater harvesting.”  The idea is already quite popular in parts of Europe, Hawaii, and Japan, and even mandatory in places like Bermuda, parts of Australia, and New Zealand. There are over 250,000 known users in the US alone.

Rainwater Connection out of Thetis Island, BC is adding western Canadian ingenuity to an already thriving industry.  The company spends about 350 hours of research and development annually to adapt and test existing technologies for use in local conditions, and to design integrated systems that are cost effective, produce high quality water, and are easy to maintain.  The Rainwater Connection specializes in designing, constructing, installing, and maintaining rainwater harvesting systems for residential, commercial and agricultural applications, as well as monitoring, maintaining, and evaluating those systems in a drive for continual improvement.  Rainwater Connection has been involved with hundreds of rainwater projects, from small residential garden water systems to commercial nurseries.  Some Rainwater Connection systems have integrated rainwater into well water systems that provide up to 100,000 gallons of potable water annually.  Such systems go well beyond simply capturing rain in a barrel, and are complex enough to require input from architects, engineers, and filtration and treatment specialists.

The Aquascape RainXchange system was created for capturing, filtering, and storing rainwater, but does so with aesthetic and artistic flair by combining re-circulating decorative water features with a below ground rainwater harvesting and storage system.  According to Aquascape RainXchange, the water potential of harvesting locally is significant.  A home with a 2,000 square foot roof can yield 1,250 gallons of water with just one inch of rain.  The RainXchange system is available and has been adapted for use in western Canada through Nature’s Corner Store, located in Edmonton, Alberta.

ECOShift also provides a line of diversified products to gather and store supplemental water supplies, primarily for irrigation and better grey water management.  One of the key areas of focus for this company is education, information, and consultation.  With the continual evolution of environmental solutions and technologies, it can be hard to keep on top of what is out there and what they really do.  ECOShift offers tools and services to help individuals and business learn about the environmental technologies and solutions available, particularly grey water recycling and rainwater harvesting.  ECOShift offers workshops, advanced seminars, technology evaluations, consultation and assessment services designed to evaluate specific needs and identify what technologies and products would be most suitable.  The company asserts that many people simply do not have the luxury to research new technologies on a regular basis, so they do the leg work for you.

Small-Scale Water Treatment

To be sure, many alternative water supply systems have their genesis outside western Canada, and they are being adopted and adapted to local conditions.  What is more, managing water woes is not just about water quantity.  It is also about water quality.  The two are highly interconnected.  You may have all the water in the world but if that water is of poor quality, of what use is it?  When it comes to water quality issues, the West is producing its own leaders, trend-setters, and industry champions.

Mainstream Water Solutions is a Saskatchewan-based company that took 200 year-old technology—slow sand filtration—and applied it in a new way to secure pure water for small water systems across western Canada. Chicken farmer David Keet rediscovered the process when confronted with the challenge of purifying water for the 130,000 birds in his operation.  The results were more than impressive, and resulted in a new start-up company that has designed and installed water filtration systems for farms, small municipalities, commercial water users, and now, larger municipalities. The Mainstream process uses naturally occurring microbes in raw water, sand, and carbon filters to remove unwanted contaminants without the use of chemicals.  From that start, the Mainstream system has evolved to include additional filters that remove arsenic and uranium, two toxins that could be impacting over 400 communities across western Canada.  With support from Communities of Tomorrow, Mainstream has leveraged some $400,000 in research and development, and moved their systems from design, to the lab, to pilot projects, and now to market. The company believes that their system is the most affordable, efficient, and environmentally friendly option for any small water system serving up to 1,000 people and is poised to double its annual revenues of $3.5 million in the next few years.

Tec-Water Supplies is a company based in Tisdale, Saskatchewan that has its sights set on helping small communities solve their water treatment challenges.  Treating water to potable standards through a centralized treatment facility is costly—often too costly for many small communities.  Yet, there are more than 2,500 small communities in western Canada and some 42,000 in the US.  Across Canada, some 7,000 communities will need to upgrade or replace their current water systems in the near future. Tec-Water has designed and patented a new technology, the Floc System 100TM, that can reduce the cost of water treatment by more than 50%.  The technology eliminates turbidity, which normally makes treatment of the water impossible, and it does this in small batches and only when it is needed.  Tec-Water has gathered over $1 million in investment, with the help of Communities of Tomorrow, to prove out the system through an installation at the new Sun Dale resort on Last Mountain Lake.  The company is confident that its processes will allow it to enter and capture what is sure to be a growing market right across North America.

Small-Scale Wastewater Treatment and Recycling

Some of the more impressive innovations in western Canada revolve around new technologies for small-scale wastewater treatment, and developing new alternative supplies through water recycling and reuse.  Some of these technologies are specifically targeted to industry sectors that are active across the West.

ElectroPure is a new mobile water treatment system designed and patented by Saskatchewan-based Ground Effects Environmental (GEE) Services.  The system is housed in three 53 foot refrigerated vans that can be moved directly onsite. The three trailers are completely “plug-and-play”, and can be set up and running in less than two hours.  The ElectroPure water system has applications across many industry sectors including oil and gas, mining, industry, and agriculture.  A specific application for mobile treatment is flowback water from fraccing in the oil and gas industry.  The system can dramatically reduce levels of polymers, total suspended solids, guar gum, iron, bacteria, scaling agents, hydrogen sulfide, silica, and almost any other material resulting from the fraccing process to levels safe for reuse.  The mobile ElectroPure system ranges in capacity from 500 m3 to 1,500 m3 per day, and a fixed stationary plant can process upwards of 3,000 m3 per day.  All systems can be remotely accessed, controlled, and optimized from anywhere in the world via satellite or cellular link.  The technology is completely scalable and mobile—treatment can be done at the well head or at a location central to multiple drilling sites.

EcoLibra systems of Saskatoon was created to commercialize a new wastewater treatment and recovery technology that is drawing attention on a global scale. The new technology is called the Resource Recovery System or R2S, and employs mechanical processes and the use of safe, non-toxic, soil-friendly additives that can convert agricultural livestock effluent and human sewage back to clean water that can be re-used or returned to the environment.  The system is fully automated and easy to use, whether employed to treat sewage from people or hogs.  The process can be easily customized to work for towns or farms.  EcoLibra estimates that the quality of treatment is ten times better than lagoon-based processes and most other traditional systems, but with a cost that is 30% to 50% lower.  EcoLibra reported sales of $3.5 million in its first two years of operations, and is projecting significant new growth over the next two years.  The company recently opened new offices in Europe and Alaska. The company is “going global” and is eager to show communities that wastewater is valuable and can be easily managed.

Livestock Water Recycling (LWR) systems of Calgary is an interesting on-farm example of water recycling and reuse.  The company has refined and patented a mechanical and chemical processing technology that removes manure contaminants from livestock effluent, including solids, phosphorous, potassium, ammonia, and nitrogen.  Again, the result is water that is quite suitable for other uses, and the removed contaminants can also be re-used in processing fertilizer.  One of the company’s newest products is its “Swinewater System”.  The water discharged from this system meets Canadian drinking water standards and is suitable for use back in the barn or for irrigation.  LWR did extensive testing at a live site in southern Manitoba in 2008 and is currently in the process of installing systems at various dairy and hog operations in the West.

The Grey Water Recycling Research Program at the University of Regina is working to develop and perfect infrastructure systems for grey water recycling.  Recycled grey water is ideal for non-potable use such as flushing toilets and landscape irrigation.  The research program, with support from Communities of Tomorrow, has successfully levered over $1 million in research support, and is working with the University of Regina’s Industry Liaison Office to find commercialization opportunities and partnerships.  The project has already generated six new patents for grey water recycling, and is now pursuing new research to extend those recycling systems so that grey water can eventually be turned back into potable water for safe consumption.

Integrating and Merging Innovations

Western Canada is also home to some exciting developments where new innovations, technologies, approaches, and systems have been merged into larger pilot projects.

The Vento Windmill Development is a very unique home-grown example of integrating new technologies and approaches.  The Vento residential development, located in Calgary, is a mixed-use commercial and residential condominium infill project located in the inner city beltline on the former General Hospital site.  The project was developed and constructed by the Windmill Development Group.  The Vento was designed up-front with water conservation in mind.  For example, a rainwater collection system is used for flushing toilets and watering plants.  The Vento also uses a number of low-flow water fixtures.  As a result of these technologies, water use in the Vento is expected to be about 60% lower than that of traditional buildings, and industry innovators and leaders are taking notice.  The Vento project was the first multi-family residential development in North America to earn the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certification offered through the US Green Building Council.

Onwards and Upwards

When it comes to environmental issues and concerns, we are all familiar with the bromide of “Think global but act local.”  The story of water in western Canada certainly reflects that idea, but could also be described as “Inventing local and exporting global.”  The West certainly has water challenges, and out of those challenges has come opportunity—a “lab” of necessity.

– By Casey Vander Ploeg, Senior Policy Analyst