'It's frankly killing us': Outdoor water users plead for end of restrictions in Calgary

Landscapers and other businesses say they’re wilting under the city’s outdoor watering ban

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Calgary’s irrigation industry says it’s wilting under the city’s one-month-long outdoor water use ban and is pleading with the city to end it.

Since the prohibition took effect, the sector, which comprises about 300 companies, has been throttled and has no idea when the ban will end, said Kyle Brost, president of the Canadian Prairie chapter of the Irrigation Association.

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“The irrigation industry is hurting really hard and not getting any information on when the hurting will be relieved,” said Brost. “It’s frankly killing us, there’s no timeline.”

Within hours of the ban being announced in early June, thousands of irrigation systems were shut off and employees idled, he said.

“We’re able to handle short-term fluctuations, but a lot of our employees have not worked since June 5,” said Brost, adding the measure has so far cost the sector $40 million.

Many of the sector’s employees are seasonal workers and students who can’t afford to lose hours, said Terry Schwager, a service technician with Jet Stream Irrigation which has furloughed 10 of its 12 employees.

“People are nervous, (staff) are calling me to see when they’re going back to work,” he said.

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Terry Schwager from Jet Stream Irrigation readies and prepares spare parts in his southeast Calgary shop on Friday, July 5, 2024. He and others are waiting for the outdoor water restrictions to lift. Jim Wells/Postmedia Jim Wells/Postmedia

On Tuesday, voluntary indoor restrictions were lifted but as the city has been slowly refilling and monitoring its Bearspaw water feeder mains — a section of which ruptured June 5 — outdoor consumption ban has been maintained as a precaution to ensure the system properly stabilizes.

Outdoor pools and splash parks also remain closed.

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On Thursday, Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the network was filled to 50 per cent capacity “and once the water services team says the water system is healthy enough, we’ll move from Stage 4 restrictions down to Stage 3.”

She also noted the state of local emergency that was declared on June 15 had expired.

But Calgary Emergency Management Agency Chief Sue Henry said Thursday the delicate task of stabilizing the Bearspaw feeder main means the outdoor use prohibition must be maintained.

“We are, unfortunately, still not at a place where we can lift those outdoor restrictions and move to Stage 3,” she said.

“This will be a phased approach and I promise we will lift it as soon as we can. We’ve come too far to endanger our progress by relaxing outdoor water restrictions too soon.”

The city has said the results of an electromagnetic and ultrasonic inspection of the impacted 11-kilometre stretch of pipe could take three to four weeks to arrive, though officials haven’t tied that timeline directly to ending the outdoor ban.

“Some level of outdoor water restrictions will likely be in place for some time yet. We’re unable to confirm how long (it’ll take) to progress further,” said Francois Bouchart, the city’s capital properties and investment director.

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It all adds up to an indefinite timeline that’s left outdoor irrigators worried about the longer-term impacts on their industry and employees.

Staff could be permanently laid off or leave the sector altogether, said Darren Kovacs, president of Jetstream Irrigation.

“Who knows — it could take three or four weeks and we don’t have that kind of time… When you’re talking (about) a lot of seasonal business, it’s heartbreaking,” he said.

He said with hot, dry weather in the forecast, some of his larger clients have voiced an intention of disregarding the ban, figuring potential fines would be less costly than losing expensive turf and trees.

“That’s the feedback we’re getting, that they’re not going to let (their property) die,” said Kovacs.

On Thursday, the city said since the start of the crisis they’ve handed out 19 tickets for water misuse and have said most of those were issued to businesses.

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None of his member companies have been ticketed but some of their clients have, said Brost.

Industry players say the current hit to their business follows last year’s two-month drought-induced water rationing in Calgary that cost them 80 per cent of their revenues during that stretch.

They also say they’re being unfairly targeted by a city that loses 25 per cent of its water flow through leakage.

Brost said his industry isn’t seeking compensation from the city at this time but added they’re not able to recoup any losses through insurance.

The priority, he said is “support for our employees” by ending the outdoor water use ban.

Another priority, he said, is ensuring outdoor green spaces receive the water they need as Calgary’s summer finally heats up.

“Trees will become stressed and potentially irreversibly with the heat coming,” he said.

“Irrigation is most important in July and August as they are the hottest driest months. It’s why home owners and businesses install irrigation.”

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X: @BillKaufmannjrn

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