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Dawson Creek and Shell elude water shortage crisis

August 24, 2012 - Dawson Creek, Canada: The city’s waste water is sent to a municipal treatment facility where it passes through a multi-step lagoon filtration process.

SPS/Andy Nichols/Polaris

In Dawson Creek, epicentre of one of British Columbia's worst droughts in decades, water is saved every time a toilet is flushed.

It wasn't always that way. Until now, waste water in Dawson Creek was just that – wasted.

But on Friday, Dawson Creek Mayor Mike Bernier cut the ribbon on a multimillion-dollar water treatment plant that is making sewage clean enough to sprinkle on park lawns.

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The plant is now helping alleviate the water shortage that has gripped Dawson Creek for months, and is also allowing Shell Canada to continue operating in a region where river levels are so low that some gas drilling projects are in jeopardy of shutting down. The treated water is being piped 50 kilometres from town to supply Shell's booming Groundbirch natural gas venture, reducing a demand that in the past has been supplied largely by local drinking water.

"There isn't a project like this anywhere else in Canada, maybe the world. And it couldn't have come at a better time," said Mr. Bernier, whose community on the weekend ramped up its emergency-water-management plan to stage four.

This stages imposes the highest level of restriction on domestic and industrial users.

"We've gone three months without rain up here," said Mr. Bernier, whose small town is located about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, in a rolling landscape where the regional drought is so bad some creeks have dried up and many rivers have dropped to their lowest levels in 20 years.

When it comes to rainfall, the past two months have been the driest since 1942.

Under the city restrictions, home owners are basically told "you can't use your outside taps," said Mr. Bernier.

"People have to turn off their fountains, their fish ponds and they can't refill their swimming pools," he said.

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"You don't want it to sound dire – but it is."

And the pain is being felt beyond the city, in the surrounding oil and gas patch.

The petroleum industry – which has been drawing about one million gallons a day from the city's drinking water supply – has been told there isn't a drop to spare until conditions improve.

Only one company, Shell Canada, has managed to escape the cutoff by tapping into waste water.

"It is a very difficult decision when you go to stage four," said Mr. Bernier.

"At that point, we go to the [industry] water haulers and say you can no longer haul any more water."

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The city gets "millions of dollars" annually from selling water to industry, and Mr. Bernier said Dawson Creek's budget will be hurt by the ban.

But he said the oil and gas industry could be hurt more.

"Some of them will drive to Alberta [to truck in water] and that can be very costly," he said. "Some will just have to shut down."

The Dawson Creek Reclaimed Water Project has been in the works for years, and it is just coincidental that it has come into operation in the heart of a drought year.

But Shell didn't get to be Shell without thinking ahead of the curve.

Mr. Bernier said the company approached Dawson Creek years ago with a proposal to fund the $14-million treatment plant, in return for a secure supply of water for the next decade.

"Through this collaborative partnership … we are virtually eliminating the amount of fresh water used for our operations, providing the City with an additional source of revenue and reducing three-million kilometres a year in truck traffic from local roads," Shell Canada's President, Lorraine Mitchelmore, said in a statement.

Allan Chapman, chief hydrologist with the BC Oil and Gas Commission, said the drought in northeast B.C. is so bad that for the past month industry has been banned from taking water from many of the rivers and streams in the area.

So far, he said, industry has been able to find alternate water in dugouts, but if the drought continues into the winter, there could be big problems.

"This drought will make industry think," he said. "I would suspect they are all now actively pondering this question of water supply."

All except Shell, that is. They are flush with water thanks to a smart project that made Dawson Creek's sewage reusable.

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