The mystery of Lake Louise's missing water
Unexplained absence of 510,000 cubic metres of water from resort's distribution system 'an embarrassment for Canada'
by Dawn Walton
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise taps into the iconic emerald-blue lake in Alberta that shares its name for everything from supplying its laundry room and watering its gardens to ensuring the ice buckets are filled.
That water distribution system has lost almost 510,000 cubic metres of water – the equivalent of 33,630 tanker trucks or 204 Olympic-sized swimming pools – pulled from the lake since 2003, according to records that the hotel submits to Parks Canada, which oversees all operations in Banff National Park.
That's almost as much water as Ottawa allows the hotel to draw each year from the postcard-perfect lake that thrives on glacial runoff in Canada's oldest national park.
Brad Cabana, a former member of Parks Canada's advisory development board, rang alarm bells about the water losses for more than a year before he resigned. He said he received little explanation – or assurances the problem has been fixed.
“This is not a slough in Saskatchewan,” said the former mayor of Elstow, Sask., who lives in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Canmore, Alta. “This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I'm trying to save something that can't speak for itself. I want to hold people accountable.”
Parks Canada doesn't monitor levels at Lake Louise because it is always changing, affected by the seasons and dependent on rain as well as the melt from Victoria Glacier above it. But evidence suggests the main glacier is under pressure.
“It's definitely melting away,” said Gerald Osborn, a professor of geoscience at the University of Calgary who has studied glaciers.
Although the icepack loss has not been calculated recently, scientists say glaciers in the Rockies are declining and at a more rapid pace.
“It's a natural recession, but it is augmented by the man-made effects,” Prof. Osborn said.
The impact of global warming is a problem for huge regions, including Western Canada, that rely on glaciers for water for their homes, businesses and farms.
Mr. Cabana noticed what he considered a large water-loss rate at Lake Louise in February, 2008, when the hotel presented his board with a $7-million plan to upgrade its water-treatment plant and build a huge new reservoir.
Records eventually showed that one-fifth of the lake water drawn by the hotel's treatment plant (which is used by the hotel and the nearby Deer Lodge and Parks Canada washrooms) has been disappearing from the metered distribution system.
Over the years, the hotel has installed low-flow toilets and shower heads, tap aerators and taken other high-tech conservation measures. Since 2001, water consumption has dropped 36 per cent.
While experts say even well-run water systems have an 8- to 12-per-cent loss or leakage rate, average annual losses at the hotel ranged from 6.9 per cent to 33.4 per cent. There has been an average annual loss of 21 per cent between 2003 and today.
The board rejected the upgrade, but it went ahead with Parks Canada's blessing. Mr. Cabana pursued the issue, but recently quit the board in frustration. He continues to hunt for answers.
“Apart from where the hell is the water going and what the hell are people doing about it, it's certainly an embarrassment for Canada,” he said.
The advisory development board, which has seven volunteer members, was set up in 1998 to let Canadians be involved in deciding what projects go ahead in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks in Alberta and British Columbia. It's supposed to make sure permit applications receive “consistent, fair and transparent reviews.”
When Mike McIvor of the Bow Valley Naturalists, a Banff-based conservation group, attended the board's first public hearing, he was impressed by the tough questions. But soon, he said, the board turned pro-development, and its recommendations could be overruled by the park superintendent.
“We came to call it the approval development board,” Mr. McIvor said.
“We stopped participating because we thought the role of the board had been reduced to choosing what colour should be on the bathroom walls,” he said.
Interested in conservation issues, Mr. Cabana joined the advisory board in January, 2008.
The next month, the waterworks upgrade at Lake Louise was presented. According to the hotel, which has roots dating back to 1890 and some water pipes that are a century old, the project was needed to meet new federal and provincial regulatory rules for drinking water and to ensure enough storage capacity in the event of a disaster such as a fire. The new reservoir would hold 1,450 cubic metres of water, more than three times as much as the existing one.
During the presentation, records showed that the hotel had been consuming well below its annual permit of 525,653 cubic metres of water.
The board was told water consumption had dropped between 2003 and 2006 and ranged from 267,809 to 346,533 cubic metres. During the same period, water production ranged between 357,803 and 384,989 cubic metres.
(Water that is produced, but not clocked by consumption meters, is not paid for. The hotel pays only for water it uses.) A chart showing the growing gap between the amount of water produced and the water consumed by the hotel and other facilities jumped out at Mr. Cabana and some other board members.
“Where is this water going?” he recalled asking. “They could not answer me.”
Three of six board members voted against the proposal, in part over concerns about adding a new water project to what seemed like a faulty system. Questions about aesthetics were also raised. The tie defeated the project. But a Parks Canada superintendent, satisfied that the concerns were addressed, later gave it the green light.
“We asked that aesthetics be improved and that's why it was approved,” explained Pam Veinotte, Parks Canada's field unit superintendent for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay.
“There will always be a level of discrepancy in any municipal water system between withdrawal and usage. That doesn't necessarily mean there's been a loss of water. It's often a result of unmetered water usage,” she added.
Mr. Cabana asked for the water balance sheets for 2007 and 2008. Unlike the numbers in the presentation to the board, the charts he was given were vague. This week, he was offered more complete – and in some cases different – figures for those years, as well as the first eight months of 2009.
There were seven months between 2003 and today when water from the treatment plant didn't vanish. But during those years, the system could not account for 509,208 cubic metres of water. Mr. Cabana figured that would be like nearly 33,630 tanker trucks loaded with 4,000 gallon drums.
Last February – one year after the project was approved – Mr. Cabana tabled a motion to find out what measures had been taken to locate the sources of the losses and fix the problem.
A month later, Parks Canada received a letter from Jackie Budgell, the hotel's environmental systems manager, who attributed the discrepancy to non-metered water consumption for irrigation, annual fire-hydrant testing and cleaning the plant filters. She also suggested that some meters might be inaccurate.
Harsh winters sometimes burst water lines and cause leaks, Ms. Budgell said. One hydrant line ruptured in the winter of 2006 and could not be fixed until spring, she said. As well, non-metered hydrants were used during a big landscape project between 2003 and 2006. She assured Parks that the discrepancy between the water production and consumption was not because of leaking pipes or other causes.
“The most important fact is that we have continued to reduce our production and consumption since 1995,” she wrote.
But those explanations didn't wash for Mr. Cabana.
The hotel estimates that cleaning the filters accounts for 2.5 to 3.2 per cent of the water consumed, and includes it on the balance sheet, therefore that can't be the cause, he said. Water losses tend to be greatest between September and March, not during the prime summer landscaping season when new plants and trees would need heavy watering, he added. And, large water losses continued after the major landscaping project was completed, he said.
“Estimates are often difficult,” said Ms. Veinotte of Parks Canada.
Hotel spokeswoman Alicia Chelsom said an environmental assessment concluded that as long as the hotel stays below its permit, there's no ecological risk.
“We draw well below that number, so even if there is a slight difference between our production and consumption numbers, there is no risk for environmental damage. Also, any water that would leak from the distribution system would run back into the ground and return to the water table,” she said.
Chris Huston, leader of asset operation for water services for the city of Calgary, called monthly water losses ranging from 20 to 42 per cent “huge.”
“There's something going on there,” he said.
It could be as simple as inaccurate meters. The system could be over-pressured, which is pushing water through leaks faster. Theft can also be a factor. But in most cases, he explained, leaks are to blame.
“It could be water running underground and they don't even know it,” Mr. Huston said.
Back in the 1980s, Calgary lost 30 per cent of its water, about 140 million litres per day. The city launched an aggressive water-main replacement program and water loss dropped dramatically. While about 1,500 water mains used to break in a year, now fewer than 400 do.
“It's a major issue across North America – the state of infrastructure,” Mr. Huston said.
At an advisory board meeting in May, 2009, Mr. Cabana quit, citing concerns about “environmental negligence.” Neither Parks Canada nor the board, he said, appeared to have any intention to hold themselves or the hotel to account.
“It remains a shock to my system that the very organization entrusted with protection of our national parks, and thereby their ecosystems, would allow such a systemic abuse of perhaps the most recognized symbol of our country,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
At the meeting, the board gave the hotel until the end of the year to show how the new system, which went into operation in June, was working. (It includes new meters and a new irrigation system.) So far, the water-loss rate has ranged from 3 to 28 per cent.
Parks Canada said it needs more data to find out whether it has a handle on its water losses.
Joe Obad, associate director with the Water Matters Society of Alberta, an independent organization focused on watershed protection, said when talking about a Canadian icon like Lake Louise there should be no questions about where the water is going.
“What I would like to see is that every drop coming out of that lake is accounted for,” he said.
Mr. Cabana has enlisted the help of Wild Rose Conservative MP Blake Richards, who has the Environment Minister's office looking into the issue.
“Water is a pretty valuable resource and you want to make sure it's being used properly,” Mr. Richards said.
Parks Canada has been directed to get to the bottom of it.
Meanwhile, Parks Canada is undertaking a mandated facelift under federal legislation. It will look at what, if anything, it should do with the many committees, such as the advisory development board, that offer Ottawa advice. Boards could be disbanded or merged.
Mention Mr. Cabana's name around the lake and people tend to bristle. When asked about his water crusade, Ms. Veinotte offered a diplomatic response.
“We really appreciate the efforts of a number of private citizens to sit on advisory groups and I think that these advisory groups have served us well in the past and many will serve us well into the future,” she said.
Mr. Cabana would still like to see an independent audit, wonders how far back the losses go and doubts the water-plant upgrades will help. So what happened to Lake Louise's water?
“That's a question I wish I had the answer for,” he said.