Winter-related issues disrupt communities across Canada every year and the impacts from extreme weather events, like ice storms, are compounded as we endure one polar vortex after another.

The socioeconomic and environmental costs due to extreme winter weather are staggering: the 2014 Toronto ice storm cost the city $106 million and, in 1998, the Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick ice storms cost $3 billion combined. More recently in November 2014, Buffalo was blasted by the lake-effect snow phenomenon, which buried residents under 170 centimetres of snow on the first day of the extreme weather event. Snow continued to fall in Buffalo for two days, which led to risks of melting with rising temperatures and the potential for major flooding.

Watermain breaks, mid-winter melt events, and flooding are all concerns for water managers as winter approaches. There is a growing recognition that water management is an all-season job, and effective year-round management of water systems in an urban environment will help offset winter hardships.

As outlined in Canadian Water Network’s (CWN) 2014 Canadian Municipal Water Priorities Report, full-cost recovery and risk management are two central components of an effective water management plan, and they help keep our water systems better prepared when the next extreme winter weather event comes our way.

Full-cost recovery is defined as considering the true costs of operating and maintaining all the elements needed to achieve sustainable water systems, and how to pay for them effectively and equitably. The resulting investment can be done more effectively and efficiently as a result of this consideration and increase reliability in the water system. It’s important to recognize water management costs are not exclusive to the summer months. In 2014, Winnipeg experienced the coldest winter since 1898, leading to the highest number of frozen water pipes in the last three decades. From January to June 2014, there were 679 watermain breaks in Winnipeg—a 76 per cent increase from the same period in 2013, resulting in a combined $10-million cost for repairs to watermains and frozen services.

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Halifax Water has done an exemplary job implementing full-cost recovery techniques within their water loss control program. Although their program was not specifically targeted at lowering the impacts of winter weather, Halifax Water has noticed a reduction of watermain breaks. “Since beginning our formal water loss control program in 1999, our annual watermain break rate has reduced from 250 to 300 to about 200 to 250 today,” said Reid Campbell, director of water services at Halifax Water. Campbell noted that some of this reduction is related to milder Halifax winters and in areas where they have implemented pressure reduction.

“The monitoring we have in place with our system gives us a tremendous ability to determine the root cause of many watermain breaks which leads us to looking at preventative strategies,” he added. “Most importantly perhaps, we have the ability, in most instances, to detect watermain breaks almost as soon as they happen and before they progress into something more catastrophic.” Campbell said this allows Halifax Water to repair watermain breaks quickly so that it minimizes service interruptions to their customers.

In addition to full-cost recovery, risk management is the other key component to an effective water management plan when we consider winter impacts on our water systems. Risk management is an essential piece of an integrated water management plan. This means identifying the full range of key drivers and associated risks that impact progress in municipal water management. There are fundamental differences between seasons when managing flooding challenges in Canada: summer can be a time of high intensity rainfall events, often more localized and characterized by rain on the ground, while winter brings regional melting events characterized by rain on snow, or melting snow over ice.

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Developing an integrated risk management framework assists in managing the wide range of possible flooding events and is a key priority for water managers. This means prioritizing concerns, actions, and investments of a full suite of interrelated risks. Going one step further, the goal for water managers of today is to move beyond examining drivers and risks and begin drawing links between them. At a first glance, watermain breaks are primarily associated with aging infrastructure and extreme changes in temperature. By looking at watermain breaks in an integrated risk management framework, we recognize that they are also related to potential public health issues, public safety, and increased costs, as well as loss of revenue.

Managing water systems is an all-season effort, especially in Canada where we experience extreme winter weather events that can greatly impact our water systems if not managed properly. Developing an integrated risk management framework combined with addressing the real costs of the systems we need are two strategies that, if employed on a year-round basis, will help offset winter hardships.  WC

Kathryn Ross is the media and public relations coordinator at CWN. Warren Wishart is the manager of CWN’s Canadian Municipal Water Consortium. This article appears in Water Canada’s January/February 2015 issue.

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