19th September 2021
No longer a rainforest: B.C.’s Sunshine Coast improvises to survive long-term drought
Farmers, gardeners, brewers and regional managers are banding together in a beautiful partnership to both store and distribute water across the extraordinarily parched coastal region, just north of Vancouver. As the area’s reservoirs continue to shrink, residents are experimenting with new ways to manage their relationship with watersheds
BY JUDITH LAVOIE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHAYD JOHNSON
Sept. 12, 2021
This story is part of When in Drought, a series about threats to B.C.’s imperilled freshwater systems and the communities working to implement solutions.
Almost buried in sand at the edge of Paul Nash’s prolific urban farm in Sechelt is an inflatable children’s swimming pool, filled to the brim with one of the most precious commodities on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast.
An unrelenting drought is parching southern communities on the Sunshine Coast, just north of Vancouver, and, as officials warn that the region is on the brink of running out of water, residents are nervously eyeing the long range forecast of dry weather.
After two months with only occasional sprinkles of rain, water levels on Chapman Lake, which supplies water to more than 85 per cent of Sunshine Coast residents, have dropped precipitously.
Pleas to the public to cut water use, enforcement and identification of water profligates or residents with unfixed water leaks, are having some effect, but, without multiple days of more than 25 millimetres of rain a day, combined with a further drop in water usage, the Chapman water supply could run out by late September.
It is obvious that the Sunshine Coast can no longer be considered a rainforest, at least in summer, says Sunshine Coast Regional District chair Lori Pratt, who has been on an emotional roller coaster as the crisis has progressed.
“We really are in a very dire situation,” Pratt says.
“I lose a lot of sleep over this,” she says, wiping back inadvertent tears.
Even after the rains come, it will not allay concerns that summer droughts are becoming the norm. Stage four water restrictions, which forbid any outside use of tap water, were imposed in 2015 for 22 days, 2017 for 25 days and 2018 for 14 days.
This year brought the earliest-ever clampdown, with stage four restrictions, meaning kicking in on Aug. 10 and now extending past 30 days with no immediate signs of letting up.
Despite those restrictions, water levels continue to drop and in late August the district opened its Emergency Operations Centre, meaning it is ready for action if a state of emergency is declared.
That would likely mean shutting off all users that are not supporting human health — essentially the hospital and long-term care facilities — firefighting or drinking water, says Remko Rosenboom, Sunshine Coast Regional District general manager of infrastructure services.
Homes could be without water for part of the day and some non-essential industries and businesses could temporarily be forced to close, warns the regional district.
“We have breweries on the coast, we have cement factories on the coast and other companies that are using significant amounts of water and, if every drop counts, every drop counts,” Rosenboom says.
Innovation is thriving as residents figure out how to continue farming or growing vegetable gardens during the drought and the emergency has triggered an extraordinary community effort to deliver totes of water to those in need.
At Ruby’s Run urban farm in Sechelt, Nash is adjusting the hoses on his new swimming pool storage system.
With stage four restrictions, Nash, who intensively farms three-quarters of an acre of leased land, knew his preexisting 1,000-litre storage tank would not be sufficient and racked his brains to come up with water storage ideas.
The answer came as he watched his neighbour’s grandchildren playing in a plastic pool.
“I looked across and thought ‘that’s water storage,’ ” Nash says.
A quick check online showed two pools were available locally and Nash says he “burnt rubber” to get to the store. He set up the 10,000-litre pool before visiting a friend with a well, carting water back in tanks and, finally, setting up pumps for the drip systems that now keep his plants alive.
“At three a.m. I completed it. That was 24 hours for the project, from concept to completion … It’s the cheapest, simplest thing and at the end of the season we can deflate it and roll it up. And it cost me $250,” Nash says.
At Ruby’s Run, the strawberries, potatoes, garlic, carrots, flowers and myriad other fruits and vegetables — many growing in raised boxes above other plantings, allowing run-through drip irrigation to be used twice — produce will be harvested earlier than usual, but, for this year, the farm has dodged a bullet.
In a region laced with small farms, where many residents rely on home gardens to stock freezers, the water restrictions came as a bitter blow.
The regional district, faced with dismay from farmers, who were in peak growing and harvesting season, gave those with ‘farm class status’ a two-week exemption from the watering restrictions, but the farm status rule means, while 16 farms are temporarily able to continue watering, numerous non-status farms are unable to irrigate their crops.
The saviour for many is an unprecedented community effort which has seen breweries, cideries and industry joining forces with volunteers to save unused water, or pick up well water in 1,000 gallon totes, which are then delivered to small farms or those with home gardens.
Walking through lush community gardens in Roberts Creek, Casandra Fletcher, board chair of the One Straw Society, which aims to create local, sustainable food systems, says there was panic when water restrictions were brought in, especially as some of the affected farms grow for the food bank.
“It was pretty crazy and I called a meeting with organizations and local governments — everyone connected with food growing,” she says.
Out of that came Project Water Box, led by Fletcher and Brian Smith, CEO of Persephone Brewing Company, which operates both a brewery and a farm.
Breweries and cideries offered their 1,000-litre plastic totes and excess grey water and, within 48 hours, 100 people who needed water signed up, while those with pickup trucks and companies with tankers, offered to deliver the water.
“It was an amazing pulling together of the community. … It was pretty darn beautiful,” Fletcher says.
Applicants were “triaged,” with food-growing farms given priority, and trucks now deliver water to more than 100 people along an 80 kilometre stretch of highway, including remote, rural properties, Fletcher says.
The program has also ordered 100 more totes, which will be sold for water storage during the rainy season, as one step towards community resiliency.
Smith, whose brewery runs tasting rooms and picnic areas, as well as growing much of the food sold to visitors, says most excess water at the brewery comes from cooling the beer, with cold water running around hot pipes.
“As it warms up, that cold water becomes wastewater, but it is clean. It hasn’t been contaminated in any way, so we have been capturing that,” Smith says.
“Being a farm, we are critically aware of the importance of water … and then it occurred to us that we probably have more water than we need here, so we started cooperating with the One Straw Society to get it to others,” he says.
The totes, which sit empty for much of the year, were the next part of the equation and friends joined the push to bring in more totes or offer water from wells, Smith says.
“So now, my guess is there’s probably been more than 100 totes brought to the Sunshine Coast, so that’s a hundred thousand litres of new water storage,” he says.
At Sunday Cider the smell of fermenting apples is drifting over the picnic area as Patrick Connelly does a quick walk through the trees. Once apple trees are established, they do not need much water, but most of the trees are young and the challenge is keeping them healthy during the drought.
Climate change looms over all the water problems which is why hardy apple trees are so important, Connelly says, pointing out that little, ugly apples make great cider while the trees help with carbon sequestration.
The cidery does not have as much spare water as the breweries, but sustainability is its core value, so the business is doing what it can to support Project Water Box, Connelly says.
“The thing that made the most sense was to offer our totes that are used for cider-making and for juice transport and storage and offer them to farms that need them to store water in site,” he says.
But it is a stopgap measure and long-term solutions are needed, Connelly emphasizes, pointing out that the water problem has been apparent for at least 25 years.
“I think the [Sunshine Coast Regional District] is working on it and understands the level of crisis, but there’s not a ton of action that has been taken that actually solves the problem,” he says.
“We don’t want to plant and pray, we need to take rational measures.”
Ione Smith of Upland Agricultural Consulting agrees that there is a history of missed opportunities.
“When we worked on the agricultural area plan for the Sunshine Coast Regional District we recommended that the regional government play a better role in bulk purchasing cisterns or water storage tanks for farmers,” she tells The Narwhal.
“There has been an opportunity for years to be prepared for this. Everyone knew the drought was coming. It was an opportunity missed by the entire community, from local government down, to get ahead of this.”
As Sunshine Coast residents ponder how water shortages became so acute, there are recurring themes such as lack of infrastructure upgrades by previous regional district boards — apparently unwilling to be the targets of public blowback from increased taxes — provincial government delays in deciding on water licence applications, development and increased tourism.
...continued in part 2