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8th July 2016
Local groups work to preserve our most precious resource…

By Debbie Bowman • June & July 2016

Here’s an interesting statistic. The earth contains more than one billion trillion litres of water.

However, only three per cent of that is fresh water, and not all of that fresh water is available or healthy to drink. Another way to look at it is the bucket analogy—if we could put all the earth’s water into a 19-litre bucket, then just over one half litre of that water would represent all the fresh water in the world. One half cup would represent all the available fresh water—water not locked into existing glaciers—and of that, only one drop would represent uncontaminated, fit to drink water.

According to the United Nations, that figurative half cup of fresh water should be enough to comfortably support seven billion people. Unfortunately, too much of our fresh water is unevenly distributed, wasted, polluted or unsustainably managed.

By the year 2025 it is estimated that 1.8 billion people will experience absolute water scarcity and most of the world’s people will be living under water-stressed conditions. Those are shocking statistics, especially when you realize that 2025 is only nine years away.

Clearly, our drinking water is a precious resource that needs to be protected and conserved.

Linda Safford is a member of the Comox Valley Water Watch Coalition, a grassroots group founded in 2006 as part of an Island-wide effort to educate the public and create meaningful policy that will eventually protect our drinking water.

Safford, one of the founding members of the Coalition, emphatically believes that water conservation and protection is of utmost importance. “We believe the global water situation is very dire—droughts are everywhere,” she says. “Of all the water in the world very little is potable, and that is being used up with fracking and industrial activity.”

Our precious and beautiful Comox Valley watershed serves 45,000 individuals and is comprised of Comox Lake and its tributaries, including much of the Puntledge River. Comox Lake is large, with a surface area of 2,100 hectares and a maximum depth of 109 metres. The watershed as a whole is approximately 58,000 hectares. Seems big, but don’t let the size of our watershed fool you.

For one thing, the Comox Valley Regional District, who manages the removal, treatment and distribution of our water, has a limit to how much of that visible water they can remove—both daily limits and annual limits. All water in British Columbia is vested in the Crown, and to divert and use surface water one must receive a licence or approval to do so—and the applications are not always granted. For example, in June 2013 the CVRD requested an increase to their existing water licence to draw additional water from the river to support projected population growth over the next 25 years. For various reasons, their request was denied.

Secondly, the water that flows from Comox Lake is shared between three primary users—the CVRD, BC Hydro, for energy generation purposes, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

BC Hydro is the master licence holder for the lake’s water, and as such, manages the flow rate to ensure the protection of fish habitats. Normally the minimum river flow to ensure fish survive and thrive is 15.6 cubic metres a second. However, over the past two summers, BC Hydro has received permit variances that allow them to drop the river flow to 8.5 and 7.5 cubic meters per second. This happened because the inflow of water to the lake was incredibly low—the lowest seen in many years. As a result, BC Hydro had to restrict outflow to maintain a lake level that would facilitate drawing water for public use.

When we look at Comox Lake, we are only seeing a tiny portion of what creates our watershed. Groundwater, located in aquifers, is actually the hidden source behind the visible surface water. Rainwater infiltrates the subsoil and replenishes groundwater supplies. Some water flows into streams and rivers and becomes runoff.

Threats to the groundwater are climate change that results in hotter, more arid conditions, preventing the infiltration of rainwater to the aquifers, and conditions that create more runoff, such as the destruction of watershed timberlands.

The surface water of our watershed is also affected by many outside influences, such as timber harvesting, power generation, residential and recreation use, as well as natural erosion and wildlife. All of these things have the potential to negatively affect the water quality of our sensitive watershed.

Our watershed is also complicated. Unlike Vancouver and Victoria who own their watershed, the CVRD does not own the land that comprises our watershed. Instead, ours is a multi-use watershed with nine different categories of landowners or responsible jurisdictions. In fact, the majority owner of our watershed is an active logging company, TimberWest, who owns approximately 60 per cent of our watershed.

To understand why our watershed is privately owned we need to conduct a short history lesson. Sonya Jenssen, a local water policy and research specialist, explains the situation: “Most drinking water resources in the Comox Valley are located in areas that were originally owned by mining and railway companies that have now been purchased by forestry companies. In 1883, the British Columbia government granted the E&N Railway company two million acres on southeast Vancouver Island from the head of the Saanich Inlet to the Comox Valley. This railway belt was considered payment for construction and operation of the rail line. Upon completion of the rail line from Esquimalt to Nanaimo, the government of Canada transferred the land to E&N in 1887, which effectively privatized the railway and the surrounding land belt. This granted E&N the ability to parcel off the land for resale to private landowners.”

As you can imagine, since we don’t own the land that comprises our watershed, it’s difficult to control what happens there. In fact, no single agency or public authority manages our watershed. Instead, TimberWest and its logging practices are regulated by the Private Managed Forest Lands Act, which, according to the Comox Valley Land Trust, is not as strict as those that govern logging on public land.

Though the CVRD does not own the land that surrounds our drinking water there are legislative bodies, such as the Ministry of Environment and Island Health, that work to protect it. For example, TimberWest is obligated to conduct their logging practices in conjunction with legislation such as the Private Managed Forest Land Act, the Federal Fisheries Act, the Fish Protection Act and the Drinking Water Protection Act.

Nevertheless, many feel that the current situation lacks ample oversight and worry that it’s an example of the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. Safford agrees. “We desperately need more monitoring of the streams and creeks in our watershed. Otherwise how do we know what is going on up there?”

It’s possible that any sort of active logging should not be allowed in our watershed, as logging within best practices may still be too much for our sensitive watershed to sustain. And no matter the politics or the economics, it’s clear that trees are important to the health of our watershed. “All of those trees have a role to play,” says Safford. “For one thing the tree roots absorb the water and regulate the flow of water into streams and rivers.”

Unfortunately, Canada isn’t leading the way when it comes to protecting our tree cover. In fact, we are second only to Russia in annual tree loss. From 2011-2013 Canada lost 2,450,000 hectares of forest. This was mainly due to forest fires and deforestation from oil, gas and logging operations.

This fact is relevant to a discussion of our watershed. If you look at a series of satellite images of the Comox Lake watershed from 1984 to the present, one can see the extent of logging that has occurred over the past 33 years.

When we remove large stands of trees we create ground instability, and in doing so we also increase the amount of sediment that flows into streams and rivers. All this sediment flows into the lake and results in turbidity.

Ah, the T word: turbidity. Comox Valley residents have heard this word a lot these past couple of years, as it is the reason for those costly and annoying boil water advisories.

Turbidity is defined as fine suspended particles picked up by water as it flows through streams and rivers. The problem with these particles is that they can harbor pathogens, which have the potential to overload the disinfection processes. As well, organic matter in water can react with chlorine to create disinfection-by-products (DBPs) that can be detrimental to our health, especially over the long term. Though the issues that can arise with increased turbidity can negatively affect the health of anyone, those most at risk are the very young, the very old, or those with underlying health conditions.

So it’s more than just cloudy water. Actually, measurable turbidity is not even visible to the naked eye—when the turbidity levels are above normal, the water from our taps may look the same as ever. But as the turbidity increases so do the health risks.

In 2007 Island Health outlined its requirements for water treatment in a document called the 4-3-2-1-0 Drinking Water Objectives, which stipulated new requirements for water from streams or lakes. “There are standards for surface water that must be met,” says Mike Herschmiller, Manager of Water Services for the CVRD. “You need two forms of treatment and one must be filtration.”

Though Island Health requires filtration, there is a clause in the legislation that allows a deferral of the filtration system if the source is considered a quality source and the turbidity rate can be contained to stay below one NTU 95 per cent of the time and under five NTU 100 per cent of the time. (NTUs are Nephelometric Turbidity Units. Nephele is the Greek word for ‘cloud’; metric means ‘measure.’ Nephelometric, therefore, means ‘measuring cloudiness’.) Since Comox Lake is considered a quality source the CVRD was issued a deferral, and as a result the CVRD was able to provide drinking water with only one form of disinfection—chlorination.

The problem is the deferral only stands as long as the situation remains constant. “Sometimes a filtration deferral will be given upon request, but that can always be revoked. For example, because of turbidity issues we were no longer able to show that we were able to meet the NTU requirements, and as a result, Island Health revoked the deferral,” says Herschmiller. “Now the operating permit issued by Island Health states that we must construct a filtration facility. We are required by law to follow the permit guidelines, and these guidelines are ones put forth by the Province as well as the federal government.”During the last few months the CVRD has been conducting internal and public meetings to decide the best route to take in our water filtration system. “We’ve carefully considered many options, and that consideration has included consultation with the public. In fact, the values and opinions collected at the public consultations were a large part of the decision making process,” Herschmiller adds.

The option that the CVRD is moving forward with is a deep water intake with filtration. According to Herschmiller, even with filtration, a deep water intake has benefits. “The colder temperature and lack of light at depth means there will be less organics in the water, which equates to lower disinfection-by-products formation and less fouling on an intake screen. In addition, deep water collection protects the water from surface contaminants, such as fuel and vandalism.”

...continued in PART 2