Clark County is in a drought emergency, along with the rest of Washington.
Grass around the region is brown and thirsty for significant rainfall; yet, the sun keeps shining.
If there’s anyone acutely aware of this issue it’s Tyler Clary, the city of Vancouver’s manager for water systems/water engineering.
Though people should be conscious of how much water they’re using day to day, and the utility regularly tracks rainfall and usage, Clary doesn’t see any water rationing warnings coming anytime soon — an action it’s never has to take.
“We’re a little bit more resilient to these drought concerns those other utilities face because we’re a groundwater-supplied system,” Clary said, adding that it would take a few years of “consistent drought” before aquifer levels would be impacted so much that it would be a problem locally.
“So the current drought declaration that’s going on, we’re watching it closely, but at the same time, it’s not as big of a concern for us because we have adequate water supply in the ground right now,” he said.
Water use didn’t skyrocket as expected during COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders, but there has been significant usage recently, including during the record-breaking heat wave in late June.
“We used a lot of water,” Clary said. “We pumped a lot of water because people saw their plants dying and their trees starting to die off, and they were watering their yards.”
The year that saw the most water demand, he said, was 2006, when the utility pumped 10 billion gallons of water through its more than 1,000 miles of distribution pipe. Last year, the utility pumped 9.5 billion gallons to more than 250,000 residents.
“I think we’re going to beat that this year,” he said.
Clary, 47, grew up in Kennewick and received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Washington State University. He has worked for the city for 17 years. He and his team provide strategic planning and design for all things related to the city’s water system.
The Columbian caught up with Clary to learn more.
What are some of the projects you’re working on now?
We have several large projects right now. The most prolific is at what we call Water Station 1. The general public calls it Water Works Park, right next to Clark College. It’s a 25-acre site and utility-owned property and is our largest and most productive water station in all of Vancouver. We’re doing a multi-phase project at the site to replace aging infrastructure with the idea of resiliency in mind. We want to make sure our most prolific water supply is not vulnerable to natural disasters and potential man-made issues. We’re increasing security there, as well. Phase 2 has been under construction for 1½ years now and includes replacement of old water storage tanks, what we call reservoirs. One of the reservoirs on the site was built in 1909; it was more than 100 years old when we replaced it. The next phase that hasn’t started yet is we’re going to replace a couple wells at the site. All in, it’s around a $45 million-project.
What’s the deal with tap water versus well water or bottled water, and what is best to drink?
One of the things we try to make sure is clear is drinking water utilities (is) significantly more regulated than bottled water suppliers; they have to meet FDA requirements. We, as a water utility, have to meet standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Vancouver tests for about 240 different contaminants on a regular basis. I’m not saying bottled water isn’t safe to drink, but (it’s) not regulated as significantly as we are as a water utility. That’s our No. 1 priority, to make sure we have a safe water supply for the community. There’s a ton of private wells out there still and even within our water service boundary, but they don’t get tested like we do. We, the state Department of Health and Clark County Public Health like to promote elimination or non-use of private wells primarily for that reason. People often don’t test and don’t know what is in them.
So people’s water usage is directly related to their water bill. Will rates change?
We’ve been consistently working with council on rate needs over the past several years, and council has been fairly supportive of needed rate increases to make sure assets are taken care of. We’re working on a rate model to evaluate water, sewer and stormwater rates and where they need to be set. There’s going to be some community outreach on it soon and council workshops in the fall. When you look at where we are from a billing standpoint, we’re still cheap compared (with) water utilities around the state and into Oregon. We’re proud of that and want to keep that as much as possible, but we have infrastructure that’s aging and we need to replace that to ensure it’s a reliable supply.
How can people be more conscious of their water usage?
We’ve got some great water conservation tips on our website. One thing that makes a big difference is running full loads of laundry and dishes; don’t do partial loads. Shut off the water when you’re brushing or shaving. If you have something that’s failing like a shower head, look for a low water use shower head. Irrigation is huge; we want to see these huge peaks of water use in summertime lower, and it’s all related to irrigation around here. If you know it’s going to be raining for a couple days in the summer, turn irrigation off. Everybody now has smart fridges or smart TVs; they now have smart irrigation systems that can connect in and look at weather forecasts internally and turn your system off or reduce water in the sprinkler system. There are a lot of great options.