Testing at the Tap: Environmental Protection and Domestic Water Safety at UBC

Water is a crucial resource at UBC, for basic human needs and to support research and operations. The simple act of turning on a tap to access a safe and reliable water supply is something students, faculty, and staff depend on each and every day.

Although UBC isn’t technically a municipality, in many ways it operates like one — maintaining a vast infrastructure and supplying our own services, including waste management, energy generation and distribution, and infrastructure development. Managing our water alone is an intricate process involving staff members from Safety & Risk Services and partners from across UBC’s VP Finance & Operations portfolio (VPFO).

These individuals work in concert every day to ensure the university has a clean, safe, and sustainable resource on tap — by procuring, securing, testing, delivering, financially managing, and safely disposing of the university’s water. Through this work we enable excellence at UBC, by making sure water is available to support world-class research, to heat and cool our buildings, to water our campus living lab, and to be ready to drink.

What makes quality water?

Water quality is a primary concern for Ligia Gheorghita, an environmental protection advisor with the Safety & Risk Services department. Ligia oversees the testing of water inside campus buildings — at taps and drinking fountains.

Twice per year, the water in several buildings across campus is sampled and analyzed. The buildings are typically tested twice in a row, to look for any changes in quality, and rotated, to make sure many buildings get tested. The results are reviewed and compared with Health Canada’s current Guidelines for Drinking Water quality, and published on the Safety & Risk Services website.

Ligia, who obtained her PhD from UBC in chemistry, has worked at the university for 18 years. She often fields queries about the quality of water in specific buildings and works with the VPFO’s Building Operations zone facilities managers to conduct ad hoc testing. Sometimes the results necessitate having fresh water flushed through the pipes, which may be done by the Building Operations team. “It’s sometimes a matter of flushing the system, because the building hasn’t been used in some time — if it’s not used in summer or if some construction went on,” Ligia says.

Where does our water go?

Ligia is also involved in the safety of another key aspect of water at UBC: its disposal.

UBC’s Vancouver campus has what’s known as a split system. Rainwater and melted snow drain into a stormwater system and are diverted back into the natural environment via storm outfalls, while domestic water — roughly 10 million litres per day — ends up in a separated sanitary sewer system when it goes down our drains and toilets. In the south part of campus, the sanitary sewage pipe travels straight south, while from the north, a sanitary sewer pipe veers north and east along the cliffs above Spanish Banks where it links up with the Metro Vancouver sewage network. Both ultimately arrive near the airport, to be treated at Metro Vancouver’s Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The Iona plant is a primary treatment facility, meaning it removes large materials from the water but is not equipped for more advanced purification. Because the discharge from Iona ends up in the ocean, it’s vital that UBC prevents harmful materials, such as those that may be generated in labs or from research projects, from entering the sanitary sewer.

“We’re trying to prevent pollution at the source, mostly through education and responding to questions,” she says. Researchers on campus who suspect they might have harmful liquids are required to fill out an Aqueous Waste Profile form, which is reviewed by Ligia to determine how to properly dispose of the liquid. She and the team at Environmental Protection are essentially acting as an important filter to prevent harmful substances from ending up in the marine ecosystem.

The VPFO is responsible for stewardship of UBC’s physical and financial assets, including all facilities as well as the university budget and endowment. The services provided by the 1200+ individuals who report to the portfolio enable UBC’s excellence in learning and research.

In addition to Safety & Risk Services and Building Operations, teams from VPFO’s finance and Energy & Water Services departments are critical to keeping our water systems flowing. Read the full feature on Water at UBC on the VPFO website