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18th September 2021
...continued from Part 1

Anyone who has been here more than a couple of years knows that water problems have not been solved. The community has been wrestling with that and trying to encourage our politicians to show a little bit of leadership, but it hasn’t happened. The infrastructure doesn’t exist yet,” Smith, from the Persephone Brewing Company, says.

“The biggest missing piece is political will. … Political cycles are short and one of the fears of local politicians is that we live in a small community and they don’t want to be disliked,” he says.

That appears to have changed with the current regional board and the sense of urgency is now palpable. District chair Pratt lays much of the blame at the feet of the provincial government and says that, with continual delays in making decisions on applications, such as use of the Church Road well site, a proposed groundwater well system, her feelings have progressed from frustration to downright anger.

“We’re just waiting and it feels like every time we’ve got something ready, the goalposts have changed or they are expecting us to get more information,” she says.

“Water expansion projects take a lot of time as you wait for provincial approvals and testing and feasibility studies on wells and aquifers. We’ve been denied the Chapman Lake expansion that would have allowed for accessing more water sources within that system,” she says.

In 2018 Environment Minister George Heyman turned down an application to raise the dam after a divisive community debate. The changes would have meant either removing part of Tetrahedron Provincial Park, the largest protected area on the Sunshine Coast, or downgrading the park.

Reliance on Chapman Lake means the water system is fragile, but the regional district has been trying to diversify, only to be stymied by provincial delays, although Pratt says she and others in the district hope the Church Road well site will be operational by next year.

The Church Road application went to the province in 2019 and, that year, Doug Donaldson, then forests minister, said it was a top priority, Pratt says with exasperation.

“He assured us at a face-to-face meeting at the Union of B.C. Municipalities that it would be given the highest priority for health and safety. We’ve followed the process. We are still waiting on licensing from the province,” she says.

A spokesperson for the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Ministry said there is ongoing consultation about the Church Road site with the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nation and the Town of Gibsons has also submitted applications for the same groundwater source.

Technical assessment is near the final stage and the province is working with municipalities to manage the aquifer “in a responsible and sustainable manner through a water management plan,” the spokesperson said.

Although some are pointing at increased development and tourism as part of the problem, average population growth is between one and two per cent, says Pratt, who, in her non-political life, is a realtor who has also worked in the tourism industry.

Last month the regional board stopped short of putting a moratorium on water service connections, which is one of the few ways the board can restrict development in rural areas where subdivision applications are approved by the province, but the board may revisit that motion, Pratt says.

Residential water users were among the top water users in August 2021, according to a district presentation.

Pratt doubts whether tourism can be restricted, but some, such as councillor Selena August, acting Chief of shíshálh (Sechelt) First Nation, worry that tourists and absentee landlords are creating problems because they are less concerned than locals about the ramifications of running out of water.

“There has been a huge increase in visitors. I am looking at licence plates from Ontario, Alberta and the States. It’s crazy,” she says.

Annie Wise, executive director of Sunshine Coast Tourism, says that she doesn’t see tourism as a primary driver of drought. “While there are more travellers in the summer months, I don’t think that’s what’s driving the water emergency — I think it’s climate change.”

The district’s data shows a clear connection between a lack of water and water wasted via major water leaks, she says. And the bulk of tourists during summer months flock to the region’s largest resort properties in Pender Harbour and Egmont, Wise says, which rely on different water source from Chapman Lake that is not currently experiencing a water emergency.

Five large siphons are now being used to pump water from depleted Chapman Lake, with district staff either having to hike the 18-kilometre round trip to the lake or hitch helicopter rides in to regularly check the siphons.

The regional district is consulting with the shíshálh Nation about plans to siphon water from nearby Edwards Lake — a project that, once consultations are concluded, would need provincial approval — and there are ongoing negotiations with the Town of Gibsons, which draws its water from an aquifer, on re-opening a hookup into their system and then “paying back” the water to top up the aquifer once the rains start. If the regional district starts drawing water from the aquifer it is likely Gibsons to more severe water restrictions.

Along Chapman Creek, at the intake for the nearby water treatment plant, a trickle of water is tumbling gently over a picturesque waterfall, a far cry from the torrent seen during wet weather.

Because the creek is salmon-bearing, the province, under the B.C. Water Sustainability Act, stipulates 200 litres a second must be released to maintain flows for the fish, Rosenboom says, adding under current conditions, more water is going to protect the fish than into the water treatment plant. The regional district is considering asking for an amendment, but are not optimistic that the province and Fisheries and Oceans Canada will support an emergency amendment. The requirement for 200 litres a second for the fish was brought in in 2016 by the province under the Water Sustainability Act.

Much now depends on whether residents can hold their water usage below 11 million litres a day, Rosenboom says. Over the last weekend of August, usage ranged between 10.1 and 11.6 million litres.

One key is finding those with large leaks on their properties and Pratt said that, recently, four leaky properties were identified and found to be sending about 345,000 litres a day into the ground.

Staff schedules at the regional district have been adjusted to watch for night-time guerilla watering, ultra-green lawns or luscious flowers.

But even those telltale signs do not necessarily mean someone is breaching water regulations as some are taking measures such as showering while standing in containers to catch grey water to irrigate the garden or flush toilets, Rosenboom says.

So far, four people have been handed $500 fines and 15 shut off notices have been sent to properties with large leaks where owners were previously warned to fix the problem. Based on August figures from those with meters, 338 leak letters and 487 warning letters to high water users have been sent out.

Dean McKinley, regional district chief administrative officer, said that most residents know it is essential to push daily use below 11 million litres and feel a sense of personal responsibility to fall under that target.

“A lot of times these environmental issues are so daunting that people think ‘what difference could it possibly make if I change my behaviour,’ but this is an example of what we do right now can make a huge difference. It could easily make the difference between getting through this crisis or finding ourselves in a dire situation,” he says.

There are 6,200 water meters in the district, which help identify leaks or higher-than-average water usage, and metering the Sechelt area is a priority for the regional district. In July, the district received approval from electors to borrow up to $7.25 million over 15 years for a water metering installation project, but it is not known when the project will be completed.

A few kilometres away, in Gibsons, water use dropped by almost 55 per cent after meters were installed and, simultaneously, the town decided to incrementally increase the price of water.

“We decided a five per cent increase a year until 2026 or 2027 would be sustainable and we’ve not had any pushback,” says Gibsons Mayor Bill Beamish.

The changes mean that the town is now able to supply Upper Gibsons with water, which it could not do before, and the aquifer has higher levels of water than in 2012 because, although more people are being serviced, they are using less water.

The downside is that “it has pushed up water bills for users such as farmers,” says Ian Rogers of Shady Hazel Farm, who estimates his water bill this year will be between $6,000 and $10,000.

“We will lose money this year for sure,” he says, and, holding up one of the largest of the year’s crops, quips, “this is a $600 pumpkin.”

The Gibsons approach, which has concentrated on mapping natural assets of the region and protecting the aquifer, has helped the town remain at stage two water restrictions, which limit outdoor water use to two evenings a week, between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. Every dollar collected for water goes back into the system, says Gibsons Chief Administrative Officer Emanuel Machado.

A study, completed in 2012, looked at the condition of the aquifer and the ability to supply the community with water.

“What that told us is that we have high-quality natural assets that not only store and filter the water, but require ongoing monitoring,” Machado says.

The town’s asset management plan was extended to include natural assets like wetlands, rather than looking only at engineered assets like water pipe infrastructure, and it was agreed that everything from the mountaintops down to the coastline should be included with the role of nature considered as a fundamental part of municipal infrastructure.

“It is these assets that we’re going to depend on in the future for our climate resilience and service to communities,” Machado says.

Michelle Lewis, who was hired by Gibsons as “the only natural asset technician in Canada,” has completed an aquifer mapping study which identifies their potential risks.

“Climate change is one that we are going to be modelling even further because we recognize the speed at which the climate is changing and development pressure is another one,” Lewis says.

...continued in Part 3