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Consultants make recommendations to keep Banff's drinking water free of contaminants

Banff residents, visitors consume equivalent of three Olympic-size swimming pools of water per day.

BANFF – The Town of Banff will review a third-party consultant’s recommendations to protect the municipality’s underground water source into the future, including from any potential contamination.

Matrix Solutions Inc., which was hired by the municipality to help with a groundwater monitoring study, has concluded the water supply from a deep underground aquifer is sustainable but recommended creation of a wellhead protection plan to address development and potential future contamination issues.

The company also recommended additional spot flow monitoring on Forty Mile Creek, additional groundwater observation wells, installation of real-time data loggers on observation wells and additional raw water sampling and testing at wellheads.

Town of Banff officials say the consultant’s recommendations have yet to be reviewed in great detail, but note administration will consider the potential value and timing of each recommendation and present budget costs for council’s consideration when appropriate.

“We really need to think about that as sacred ground because that’s where our drinking water comes from,” said Michael Hay, the municipality’s manager of environment and sustainability.

Banff’s water supply is extracted via three 60-metre deep wells, drilled into the alluvial aquifer, that are located north of the townsite at the base of Cascade Mountain.

In terms of a wellhead protection plan recommended by Matrix Solutions Inc., Hay said that has to do primarily with development on the south side of the highway and potential contaminants leaking into surface waters like creeks and wetlands.

“Our aquifer is a partially confined aquifer, which means it’s sort of isolated from the surface but not really; there is still potential for surface contaminants to go down into the ground and contaminate our water,” he said.

“We need to be very conscious about the types of developments that are occurring, stormwater management in those areas, and things like that … really, it’s about protecting the surface from any potential contaminants infiltrating into the ground.”

The impact assessment and groundwater monitoring study have been done for the Town of Banff’s application to Parks Canada for a 10-year water withdrawal permit, which is a requirement of the 2022 management plan for Banff National Park.

The work primarily aimed to evaluate the long-term sustainability of the town’s water source from the underground aquifer, taking into consideration resident and visitor population growth and climate change. In addition, it looked at potential environmental impacts of groundwater extraction to streams, such as Forty Mile Creek, Whiskey Creek and wetlands in the area.

As part of the work, three forecast models were run out to 2041 – a low scenario based on 50 per cent lower residential/visitor population growth; medium based on current residential/visitor population growth rates; and high based on 50 per cent higher residential and visitor population growth.

The municipality also ran a dry climate change scenario based on the high demand forecast.

The consultants determined the ongoing and steady state drawdown over the past 35 years relative to a no-water extraction scenario is about one metre, expected to advance to 1.3 metres of drawdown in 2041 at current growth rates.

Based on the findings, Hay said the Town of Banff’s groundwater supply should remain reliable to the end of 2041, even if consumption increases by more than 50 per cent, and despite the effects of climate change.

He said the consultants also concluded the groundwater withdrawals are not predicted to cause significant impacts to nearby stream flows or wetland habitat under any of the forecast scenarios.

“In a nutshell, the experts that completed the study have said that that’s not significant, it won’t have an impact on surface water, it will have no significant impact on the long-term viability of the aquifer,” he said.

“The conclusions are simple – our groundwater supply appears to be reliable until the end of the modelled period in 2041, although we will revisit this study in 10 years because the superintendent can only grant a 10-year permit.”

Annual water consumption for the Banff townsite, which is home to 8,300 residents and hosts more than four million visitors a year, has been stable over the past 25 years, averaging just over 3.3 million cubic metres a year and exceeding 3.5 million only twice since 2004.

Since 2015, the community water consumption has declined steadily to a historic pre-COVID-19 low of 3.1 million cubic metres in 2019, despite steady growth of residential and visitor populations which are increasing annually at rates of about 1.1 per cent and two per cent respectively.

Hay said Banff consumes about 7,500 cubic metres each day, which is the equivalent of three Olympic-size swimming pools.

“That doesn’t seem like a lot when you think how big a swimming pool is, but if we do that for 365 days a year, that’s over 1,000 swimming pools and it starts to add up,” he said. “It’s over three million cubic metres per year, which is a heck of a lot of water.”

The reasons for Banff’s declining water consumption are varied, according to the Town of Banff, and include voluntary conservation measures following introduction of universal water metering in 1997 and ongoing work to repair leaks in the system.

Town-wide use of more efficient appliances, supported by land use bylaw requirements and rebate programs, along with reduced irrigation due to densification and xeriscaping, and hotel redevelopments and partial closures since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have also contributed.

“That’s obviously a really good story,” said Hay.

“Over time, clearly there are more people in town but less and less water being consumed.”

Coun. Chip Olver, who has for many years raised questions about the sustainability of the town’s water supply, was relieved to hear the findings of the groundwater monitoring study, which has been two years in the making.

“Over the last few years there’s been so many stories in the news about Alberta, B.C., and other western provinces experiencing drought conditions,” she said.

“I’ve been so curious about our water source and how secure we were from those conditions, and this report is such a relief to find out that we’re very unusual in our province to have what I see as a secure source of water.”

The required impact assessment/groundwater study was completed in March and has been submitted to Parks Canada for review. This submission constitutes the municipality’s application for a water withdrawal permit.

Parks Canada is currently reviewing the application prior to granting a water permit, which is likely to take several months.

The impact assessment/study is not being publicly released, but the Outlook has requested a copy when the document becomes public.

“The entire submission is 1,265 pages long, including all supporting figures and appendices, and is currently in ‘final draft’ form,” said Hay.

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