Varcoe: 'This looms large' — Calgary businesses gird for water crisis to continue as Stampede approaches

‘The initial reaction from the hotel sector, as part of the business sector, was let’s do whatever we can now to get everything corrected and fixed . . . so we’re ready for Stampede’

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Calgary companies are surprised and concerned by news that the city’s water woes will likely continue for another three to five weeks, and could extend into July before problems are finally fixed.

From hotels and commercial building owners to local breweries, business operators are trying to figure out what the water emergency means for the summer season, the Calgary Stampede and other key events planned for the days ahead.

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For Big Rock Brewery, which has already cut its water consumption by about 500,000 litres since the break in the city’s water main line earlier this month, it likely means continuing to defer some beer production.

This is typically a period when the Calgary-based firm builds up its inventory for the warmer weather and patio season, when demand for suds picks up. The city’s announcement on Friday evening of an extended timeline to repair the problem could alter its production plans.

“We nearly had a heart attack. We’ve found a way to manage under the current state always thinking, ‘OK, we’ve got to tighten our belts for two weeks.’ If this goes on for three to five weeks, that is essentially our summer brewing season shot,” said Brad Goddard, Big Rock’s vice-president of business development.

“Everybody has been waiting to say, ‘OK, I’ve got to tighten my belt for five more days, three more days.’ That’s why it was such a surprise.”

Brad Goddard
Brad Goddard, Big Rock’s vice-president of business development. Courtesy Big Rock

On Saturday morning, the city declared a state of local emergency as it grapples with the challenge of replacing the section of the water main that burst on June 5, affecting supplies in Calgary. City officials initially anticipated it would be repaired within about a week.

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But the city now needs to address five other hot spots in the same water artery, pushing the timeline of repairs by an expected three to five weeks, potentially into or even beyond the Calgary Stampede.

Calgary Chamber of Commerce CEO Deborah Yedlin said Saturday the business group was “surprised and very concerned” the city entered a state of emergency and by the revised timeline.

Goddard said the city asked Big Rock earlier this month to look at a voluntary 25 per cent reduction in water use. It has exceeded that mark, curbing consumption by about 40 per cent.

The company has saved water by cutting the number of brews it does per day. Each batch uses about 20,000 litres of water.

Reducing output has ramifications for production levels into the summer, as lagers take four weeks from the time of brewing until packaging occurs, he noted.

“The beer we are brewing right now is for the Canada Day, Stampede, peak beer drinking season, which is July in Canada. And by curtailing the brews today, the longer this goes on, we won’t be able to meet beer demand,” Goddard said.

“We will simply run out of beer.”

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The next few weeks could be pressure-packed for many water-intensive companies as they look for other ways to conserve.

City businesses use about 35 per cent of the total water consumed in Calgary, while residents use 65 per cent.

With the repair timeline now expected to extend into July, the city wants all Calgarians to remain vigilant in their use.

As well, it’s calling on businesses to respond, such as by encouraging people to work from home instead of coming into the office.

“By working from home, your employees can skip a shower, put on the clothes they wore yesterday and even skip a hair wash or shave,” the city’s water services director Nancy Mackay told reporters.

The city has already reached out to 7,000 businesses about taking water conservation measures, including those in industries such as beverage and bottling manufacturers, industrial laundry companies, distillers and car washes.

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For example, it’s asking car dealerships, repair shops and car washes to stop using water for vehicle cleaning.

For local hotels, the announcement arrives as it is gearing up for the annual influx of visitors for the Stampede, which starts July 5.

The city’s biggest tourist draw already has seen strong hotel bookings. Operators hope this year’s Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth generates record industry revenues, said Sol Zia, executive director of the Calgary Hotel Association.

Hotels have not seen any cancellations due to the water issues, Zia noted.

Sol Zia
File photo of Sol Zia, executive director of Calgary Hotels Association. Jim Wells/Postmedia

Many Calgary operators have already taken voluntary steps to curb water use. Some have closed down hot tubs and pools, and only replaced linens and towels if guests have requested it.

“The initial reaction from the hotel sector, as part of the business sector, was let’s do whatever we can now to get everything corrected and fixed . . . so we’re ready for Stampede,” Zia said Saturday.

“What worries me is any implications or any tactics that make it seem like the city is not open for business, that we won’t be ready for Stampede — we will be.”

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Yedlin agreed, saying the city should find creative solutions to avoid any “reputational risk” and ensure the hospitality and tourism sector aren’t hindered by the crisis.

The Stampede generates $540 million in economic activity, the chamber noted.

“We need to find a solution so that there’s no risk to our visitor economy,” she said. “This looms large.”

Building owners and operators are also looking at steps to lower water use.

Some are adjusting water-based temperature control systems.

Building operators have also closed shower facilities, adjusted wet-cleaning practices and are watering plants less frequently in common spaces and suites, said Lloyd Suchet, executive director of BOMA Calgary, which represents commercial building owners.

“Like all Calgarians, we were hoping four to six days and we’d be sort of back to normal,” Suchet said.

“But we are where we are.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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