Several years ago, Vancouver experienced an unusually tough winter, which is to say that it snowed.
And the snow lasted for several days. The usual chaos followed on Vancouver streets with buses and cars spinning out of control as fair weather drivers tested their summer tires on ice. More unexpectedly, the unusual conditions provoked landslides on the sheer slopes above the Capilano reservoir, located at the base of several North Shore mountains, the source of a goodly portion of the region’s drinking water. Higher than normal turbidity was registered in the water as a result and the Greater Vancouver Regional District, the caretaker and supplier of the region’s water, took the unusual step of advising households to boil water before drinking it. In the post-Walkerton era, this level of caution was understandable. The quality of the water and the health of the citizens had to be ensured.
As I boiled large pots of water and witnessed Vancouverites scramble in the grocery stores for bottled water, any bottled water, I began to wonder about the city’s relationship with drinking water. Brushing your teeth with Perrier has a way of focusing the mind. Only a few weeks earlier the City of Vancouver had sought to ban bottled water from civic buildings as a vote of confidence in the fine quality of the region’s drinking water. And now this. How had our ideas about clean water emerged exactly? And just what did people think “pure” water meant?
These questions led to a new research project examining the history of Vancouver’s water supply from the founding of the city to the present. I wanted to know how the water network had been constructed over time and how people perceived, valued and used potable water. There is no doubt that Vancouver draws on high quality water sources, close to the city, bounded by protective mountains and forests which suffer no interference from sewage disposal. But just how were these water sources identified, set aside and protected? And how did the notion of good water come to be enrolled in the Vancouver myth of a beneficent urban environment? What meanings have been attached to Vancouver’s “good” water over time and what has happened when that “good” water has been deemed of poor quality?
My upcoming conference paper at the American Society for Environmental History meetings in Toronto takes up these questions in the context of the Second World War. The war was something of a break point in the city’s social and political history and so too in terms of its water history. During the war, the federal government ordered the city’s water to be chlorinated for the first time. While many other North American cities had chlorinated water for decades, Vancouverites assumed some virtue in the fact that this form of treatment had not yet been required in their city blessed by nature. The imposition of chlorination under the federal war measures act responded to local water testing which pointed to declining water quality. The decision, however, provoked incredulity and questions in Vancouver. Local defenders asked how anyone could question the water’s purity– it was widely established and self-evident! Some wondered mysteriously whether other reasons might be behind the call for chlorination. Mass public meetings were held to protest the chlorination measures and civic leaders in the region went on record voicing opposition. Critics claimed that chlorination would pollute the water, alter its taste and destroy its precious purity. Proponents of chlorination to the contrary argued that the health of war workers and sailors in port had to be safeguarded and that chlorination provided insurance against the threat of sabotage attacks. In any event, they argued, systematic testing had provided clear evidence that chlorination had become a necessity. Despite the arguments over chlorination, the measure went through in 1942 and citizens learned to live with the new tastes and smells of a chlorinated supply.
Comic in some respects, and certainly reminiscent of the genre of melodrama, this single episode provides insight into the domestication of water in North American environmental history, the perceived relationships among water, environments, and bodies, and the impact of the Second World War on the politics of the environment. It also provides some basis for understanding what Claude Dolman, a prominent University of British Columbia bacteriologist and the director of the Provincial Laboratories during the war, meant when he referred to Vancouver’s “peculiar brand of local citizenry.”