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24th October 2022
9 things that could have been done to prevent the Sunshine Coast’s state of emergency

The severe drought on the Sunshine Coast is no surprise to many who have been trying to raise awareness about water issues for years. Here are some of the solutions on the table

By Stephanie Wood
Oct. 21, 2022 13 min. read

The residents of B.C.’s Sunshine Coast have reluctantly become accustomed to drought — having declared a local state of emergency for five of the past eight years due to dwindling water supply.

This year is no different. While rain is beginning to provide some relief, the drought crisis is not going away any time soon — it’s only getting worse as weather becomes more unpredictable. Many who live on the Sunshine Coast say the problem has been festering for years, and solutions have been proposed but not often pursued.

The Sunshine Coast Regional District declared a local state of emergency on Oct. 17, which meant banning non-essential commercial water use for businesses like breweries and cement facilities.

This came weeks after the district enacted Stage 4 water restrictions on Aug. 31, which halted all outdoor water use and barred farmers from using any water for irrigation. This has had a major impact on a region that is rich with small farms and residents who rely on home gardens as a key food source.

The Sunshine Coast is not alone. In just the first two days of October, 33 heat records were broken across B.C. People in ‘Raincouver,’ which usually sees 115 millimetres of rain in October, barely saw a drop this month as wildfire smoke lingered over the mountains.

But drought can’t only be understood in terms of lack of rain, Younes Alila, professor in the University of British Columbia’s department of forest resources management, told The Narwhal.

He said to address drought, people have to understand the complexity of hydrology behind them. The drought this year can be connected to the atmospheric river last fall, and wildfires and the two La Niña years in a row, he explained.

“There is no way to mitigate droughts in B.C. without a sound understanding of what controls droughts,” he said.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, these are some of the ways the Sunshine Coast and the province could have prepared for drought this year.

1. Action on B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act

The province introduced the Water Sustainability Act in 2016 to “ensure a sustainable supply of fresh, clean water that meets the needs of B.C. residents today and in the future.”

But Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said the water management tools available under the act “have not been used much since the act came into force … and they have not been used at all during this current crisis.”

The act allows B.C. to declare a temporary significant water shortage, to issue an order to protect critical water flow and prevent “irreversible harm to the aquatic ecosystem,” and to issue an order to prevent diversion of water from a stream if the level has become so low it threatens a population of fish.

Water levels have certainly reached critical levels — thousands of salmon were found dead in Neekas Creek, shown in a video filmed in Heiltsuk territory. Watershed Watch also shared a video showing salmon-bearing Ford Creek in Chilliwack, B.C., to be extremely low, in stark juxtaposition to a golf course with sprinklers running behind it.

Water levels have certainly reached critical levels — thousands of salmon were found dead in Neekas Creek, shown in a video filmed in Heiltsuk territory. Watershed Watch also shared a video showing salmon-bearing Ford Creek in Chilliwack, B.C., to be extremely low, in stark juxtaposition to a golf course with sprinklers running behind it.

“I don’t think I’m alone in finding it very troubling that during this crippling drought, where creeks are drying up and salmon are dying for lack of water, that none of these tools have been used,” Hill said in an email to The Narwhal.

Last year, Oliver Brandes, co-director of the University of Victoria’s POLIS project on ecological governance, similarly criticized the province for not utilizing the sustainability act.

“Inadequate flows for fish are only getting worse in water-stressed parts of the province, big industrial users are permitted to extract water at virtually no cost and boil water advisories are far too frequent. Communities are feeling water insecure,” he said.

B.C.’s NDP government announced a watershed security fund two years ago, but it has not been implemented. In the spring, the province completed public engagement, with a draft watershed security strategy expected sometime this fall.

Hill did give the province credit for providing $57 million in funding for projects through the Healthy Watersheds Initiative and Indigenous Watersheds Initiative.

“Many of these were led by First Nations and have contributed to climate-proofing watersheds and improving local watershed governance to counteract the fecklessness of provincial and federal water managers,” he said.

The province also intends to create water sustainability plans under the water sustainability act, but this is also slow-going. Years in, no plans have been created — but the work has begun in collaboration with Indigenous governments, Deborah Curran, executive director at the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, said in an interview. These plans are intended to empower more regional watershed governance. Curran said they will be critical in creating long-term plans with collaboration between multiple levels of government.

Curran said more holistic and effective watershed management is needed, including ‘water-centric’ planning that looks 100 years ahead. Water levels are no longer a certainty, she said — and so plans have to be made for how to react, including who will be allowed to use water and who will not, so people feel prepared as a drought approaches.

2. Say goodbye to green lawns — for real

Speaking of water levels no longer being a certainty: introducing a ban on outdoor lawn watering in May every year is one way to prepare for unpredictable low water levels, Curran said. Some districts already have this rule in place, and the Sunshine Coast and other regions could join them.

Outdoor water use in summer is primarily used for ornamental flowers and lawns. It’s time to tweak the dominant culture and say goodbye, she said, noting it’s “low-hanging fruit” that could save up to 50 per cent of outdoor summer water use.

And speaking of cultural change…

3. Installing water metres and charging more for water use

Water is a human right, Curran said, but in the face of climate change, some people in society need a “reality check,” particularly heavy users.

She advocates for water users to pay for use, rather than a flat fee. She points out this could have tiered price ranges, keeping rates lower for families that use an average amount of water but higher for heavy users.

On average, Canadians use 235 litres of water per day according to 2015 Statistics Canada figures.

Installing water metres would also help find leaks, which can save a lot of water.

The Sunshine Coast Regional District has 6,200 water metres and a population of almost 30,000 people. The district received approval from electors last year to borrow up to $7.25 million to undertake a water metering installation project.

In a March 2022 report, the regional district said its water metering program is nearing completion, and it may review water rates in 2023 to help the transition to volume-based billing.

But a challenge that the community faces is that some people are willing to pay two or three times more as long as they can continue watering their lawns and gardens, according to Remko Rosenboom, Sunshine Coast Regional District general manager, infrastructure services.

“We have to incentivize water conservation for that for the section of our residents,” he said.

In one part of the Sunshine Coast, metering is already in effect: water use dropped by almost 55 per cent in Gibsons after the town began tracking usage while simultaneously increasing the price of water.

The town is now able to supply Upper Gibsons with water, which it could not do before. The aquifer has higher levels of water than it did in 2012 because while more people are being serviced, they are using less water. However, it has raised water bills for users like farmers.

Gibsons also extended its asset management plan to include natural assets like wetlands, rather than only engineered assets like water pipe infrastructure — recognizing nature as integral infrastructure.

4. A more efficient provincial response to water licence applications

Former Sunshine Coast Regional District chair Lori Pratt told The Narwhal last year that the province has caused many delays in making decisions on applications, including the Church Road well site, which is supposed to add up to five million litres of water per day to the Chapman water system.

“Water expansion projects take a lot of time as you wait for provincial approvals and testing and feasibility studies on wells and aquifers,” she said at the time, pointing out how an expansion application for Chapman Lake, which provides the community with water, was denied.

A spokesperson for the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Ministry told The Narwhal last year 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.

The Church Road well was due to come online this year, but the regional district said the project has been further delayed due to global supply chain issues.

“Resourcing needs to be addressed because that is really impacting everything,” Rosenboom said. The ministry is “so under resourced,” he added.

Curran said water licencing in B.C. is somewhat antiquated with the idea “whoever got here first gets it.” She said there needs to be new arrangements prepared for drought, rather than operating under the assumption water will be “available for everyone all the time.”

More consideration for the spiritual importance of water and public health is needed, and community and cultural values are not reflected in the licencing system, she said.

5. Regional governments could take more proactive roles
Patrick Connelly, co-founder of Sunday Cider in Gibsons, B.C., told The Narwhal locals often talk about how previous regional district boards failed to adequately build reservoirs and water infrastructure.

“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,” Connelly said during the drought last year.

There appears to be growing momentum. In addition to pursuing universal water metering, in 2021 the Sunshine Coast Regional District explored new watershed protection programs and the possibility of creating a new regional district service for watershed protection — a project that was largely funded by the Healthy Watersheds Initiative.

The regional district also offers rebates of up to $1,000 for water users who install rainwater harvesting systems.

...Continued in Part 2