Taps will be turned off if water rules are defied: Merritt mayor

Merritt, B.C., resident Linda Warner waters her plants by hand on April 22, 2024, as required by city watering restrictions.  (Julie Landry/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Merritt, B.C., resident Linda Warner waters her plants by hand on April 22, 2024, as required by city watering restrictions. (Julie Landry/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Extreme drought conditions and the likelihood of another challenging fire season have prompted a community in one of the driest parts of British Columbia to start managing its water supply early — and turning off the taps for people who don't follow the rules.

The City of Merritt has announced water restrictions — that the mayor says wouldn't usually be considered until mid-July — in an effort to conserve water ahead of wildfire season and get people in the habit of using less.

Level 3 watering restrictions are in effect, limiting lawn and garden watering to two times per week, on designated days depending on numbered addresses. Hand watering and washing is allowed any time.

Mayor Michael Goetz said he's anxious about the months ahead, knowing the snowpack is the lowest ever recorded at this time of year.

According to Agriculture Canada, the Merritt area, about 200 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, is facing a severe drought. The agency describes river levels as "significantly low."

Julie Landry/Radio-Canada
Julie Landry/Radio-Canada

By starting at Level 3 now, Goetz hopes the city won't have to enact tougher restrictions later in the year.

The city draws from two aquifers, according to Goetz: one about 73 metres below ground and a second about 152 metres below ground.

"With our aquifer, it's a guessing game because we really don't know how much is down there," he said, adding that the area is a semi-desert.

"We err on the side of caution to make sure that we have enough water to get us through the hotter times, because it gets hot here," said Goetz.

Water could be shut off

In previous years, the city has fined people who haven't followed watering restrictions. But now, officials say they plan to shut off homeowners' water if they don't follow the rules.

Goetz said rule-breakers will be given a letter explaining how they flouted restrictions and asking them not to do it again before a shut-off is considered.

"Paying a fine doesn't really do much because people pay the fine and then they continue with their bad behaviour," the mayor said.

Mixed reaction

Merritt resident Linda Warner said she's thrilled the city is being proactive about conserving water now.

"It's going to bring awareness and help everyone to conserve water," she said.

Warner plans to water her garden by hand and says she'll go so far as letting her lawn die to keep her shrubs and vegetables watered.

"The grass is going to die anyway over the summer, so why bother watering it now? Just let it go dormant. It'll come back when the rains come back."

But neighbour Diana Boston disagrees.

Julie Landry/Radio-Canada
Julie Landry/Radio-Canada

She, too, has moved her garden into plant pots and will water by hand, but Boston said not everyone has that opportunity.

"If we want to water our plants, we have to stand right here with the hose for hours," she said. "It's not feasible, especially for the elders."

Boston said "it doesn't make any sense," because fire restrictions haven't been introduced in the area yet.

"If I want to have a fire, I need to have access to my water," she said.

She's also concerned with the plan to shut water off if people aren't obeying the rules.

"[Water] is a necessity, it's a need. It's not a privilege, it's a right," Boston said. "If they're going to shut the water off, I mean, I don't think it's humanely right."

Frederic Gagnon/Radio-Canada
Frederic Gagnon/Radio-Canada

But Goetz said the whole point is to make sure there's water later in the season, when things could be more dire.

"We'll monitor it very carefully," Goetz said.

"It's really simple. If you don't have water, you don't have a town. It's that simple. It's over."