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Why does Winterlude use drinking water to build the Snowflake Kingdom?

A visitor photographs an ice carving at Winterlude's Snowflake Kingdom in Gatineau, Que., on Saturday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A visitor photographs an ice carving at Winterlude's Snowflake Kingdom in Gatineau, Que., on Saturday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Some environmentalists are asking why millions of litres of municipal drinking water are used to build the Snowflake Kingdom in Gatineau's Jacques-Cartier Park during the annual Winterlude festival, instead of drawing it from the nearby Ottawa River.

Since the 1990s, organizers have used treated city water to make the artificial snow needed to create the popular winter playground, a prime attraction during Winterlude.

This year, with relatively little natural snow available, they needed to make 35,000 cubic metres of artificial snow to build the Snowflake Kingdom. That's enough snow to fill 14 Olympic swimming pools.

Winterlude isn't the only winter festival to use municipal water for snow-making: The famous Quebec Winter Carnival does, too.

But some experts worry the method isn't environmentally sustainable, especially when there's an abundant natural water source nearby.

Carly Mushaha with the City of Gatineau launches a visitor down the ice slides at the Winterlude Snowflake Kingdom on its opening day, Feb. 3, 2024.
Carly Mushaha with the City of Gatineau launches a visitor down the ice slides at the Winterlude Snowflake Kingdom on its opening day, Feb. 3, 2024.

Carly Mushaha with the City of Gatineau launches a visitor down the ice slides at the Snowflake Kingdom this past weekend. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

'We need to challenge the status quo'

"Other sources of water for snow production would really, I think, be the preferred option for the future," said Audrey Maheu, a professor of hydrology at the University of Quebec in Outaouais (UQO), in a French-language interview with Radio-Canada.

She pointed out that other cities use untreated water for irrigation and street cleaning, for example, and suggested studying the feasibility of using river water during Winterlude.

"I think with climate change, we need to challenge the status quo and try to figure out where we want to use our resources," she said, though she acknowledged the amount of water used to make the snow is relatively small.

Mathieu Laneuville, president and CEO of Montreal-based non-profit Réseau Environnement, also believes it's time for the festival to seek out more sustainable sources.

"We ask citizens to do their part, I think the city should, too. We also want to show our leadership role," he said.

River water could tint snow

Benoît Brière, coordinator of the Snowflake Kingdom, said there are practical reasons behind the decision to use city water to make the artificial snow.

The municipal supply offers a more predictable flow with suitable water pressure, he said. Then there's the cleanliness, which is key to creating the sparkling white snow visitors have come to expect.

"If we go to get it from a river or a lake, there's a lot of sediment. It will tint the colour of the snow and it risks clogging the pumps," he said.

The Macdonald-Cartier Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., is seen in the foreground of this drone photo taken on Jan. 11, 2024.
The Macdonald-Cartier Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., is seen in the foreground of this drone photo taken on Jan. 11, 2024.

The Macdonald-Cartier Bridge crosses the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Gatineau. Communities from Rouyn-Noranda to North Bay to the Montreal suburbs get their drinking water from the river. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

The Ottawa River flows next to Jacques-Cartier Park and provides drinking water to the city's Aylmer, Hull and Gatineau sectors. Masson-Angers and Buckingham draw their drinking water from the Rivière du Lièvre.

Brière said pumping water straight from the Ottawa River would come with extra costs.

"It requires an additional generator, it requires additional diesel. The production costs would likely be higher than what we're using right now."

'A little bit disappointing'

In an email to Radio-Canada, the City of Gatineau echoed those concerns, and said the river water would produce snow with a yellowish tint.

According to organizers, producing the artificial snow needed for the Snowflake Kingdon currently uses less than three per cent of their $1.5-million budget.

The City of Gatineau commissioned a company from Saint-Bruno, Que., to manufacture this snow.

At the Snowflake Kingdom on Monday, Winterlude attendee and teacher Sara James was taking in the sights of the "beautiful" sculptures with her students.  

"I liked coming a lot when I was a child and seeing them, so it's fun to see them again," she said.

James said she had no idea artificial snow was used to make the snow .

"It's a little bit disappointing, honestly … we know that drinking water is a precious resource and I think it would make more sense to use something different," she said.