How a B.C. community’s water shortage threatens a provincial park

‘New normal’ of climate change catches Sunshine Coast's Tetrahedron Provincial Park in crosshairs

As unseasonably dry weather mantled B.C.’s southern coast last fall, Sunshine Coast residents were bedeviled by a new climate change reality: a ban on outdoor water use.

If they turned on a tap to sprinkle their geraniums or sluice a dusty car the penalty was a $400 fine. Gardens withered, while spray irrigation ceased on farmland and the local hockey rink sat iceless.

For the second time in three years, the community had entered Stage 4 water restrictions.

“We didn’t have sufficient water for normal domestic use and we were drawing down the lake with no end in sight,” recalled Sechelt mayor Bruce Milne. “It was quite traumatic for the community and residents. The elderly were especially finding it hard to cope.”

Water shortages around the world are becoming commonplace as the planet warms and climate patterns shift.

Cape Town is perilously close to Day Zero, when taps will run dry in the parched South African city of almost four million. Close to home, the seaside town of Tofino made headlines in 2015 when a drought depleted water supplies and the Vancouver Island community faced an economic shutdown.

But the water crisis on the Sunshine Coast near Vancouver appears to be the first time that a B.C. community in close proximity to a major urban centre has grappled with the impacts of climate change on a once abundant water supply.

“Climate change is the real driver here,” Milne told The Narwhal.

“There’s no rain coming in July and August. We used to be able to count on rain in mid-October. It’s not always there now. These shifts in weather patterns are a real factor in making it a crisis.”

Markus Schnorbus, the hydrologic impacts lead for the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, said the type of weather patterns Milne describes will become more frequent on B.C.’s coast as the planet warms.

“The type of year that he is describing is the type of year that we would expect climate change to result in,” Schnorbus said.

“It’s not so much an issue that overall there’s less water. It’s just that more of it is occurring in the wintertime and less of it in the summertime because you’re losing that natural storage.”

Climate change-fuelled water shortage threatens Tetrahedron Provincial Park

The water conundrum has sparked a divisive debate on the Sunshine Coast. Hundreds of people flocked to two community meetings this month to discuss a contentious proposal to pipe new water supplies from Chapman Lake in Tetrahedron Provincial Park, a 6,000-hectare wilderness area that protects the headwaters of the salmon-bearing Chapman and Grey creeks.

At issue are two recommendations from the Sunshine Coast regional district board: to remove 130 hectares from the park or strip the entire park of Class A status in order to convert the lake into a large water reservoir.

It might sound like an easy fix for seasonal water woes, but Milne and others warn that gutting or declassifying the park would deprive the Sunshine Coast of a “rare” protected area — one dotted with old-growth hemlock, fir and cedar forests that provide habitat for endangered species such as the marbled murrelet —  and set a dangerous precedent for incursions into other protected areas in B.C.

“It’s too bad it’s become politicized, because it’s almost a technical issue,” Milne said.

“But it’s political because people have very strong values about parks and about ecological values. And others have very strong values about the need for domestic water, and fear of a drought.”

Neither one of the district’s recommendations considers viable alternatives for dealing with the water crisis, said Milne, who chairs the regional district board and represents the Sunshine Coast community that is the largest water user.

Last month, Milne wrote a letter to B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman saying the preferred public option is “none of the above” park incursions.

The environment ministry, which must approve any changes to the park’s status, is leading the public consultations, which are taking place several years after the regional district board first made the recommendations following the 2015 drought.

The regional district board is evenly split on the issue, and a motion Milne made in March to abandon the proposed Chapman Lake “expansion project” was defeated.

‘Band-aid’ solution doesn’t solve real problem of water shortage

Barry Janyk, the former mayor of Gibsons and executive director of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C., is among those opposed to tampering with Tetrahedron Park.

“The regional district has not explored all the options,” Janyk told The Narwhal. “They’re looking at Chapman Lake as being the quick and dirty fix. It’s a simple band-aid. It does not solve the problem.”

Tetrahedron Provincial Park, established in the 1990s, is the largest protected area on the Sunshine Coast.  Only three per cent of Crown land is protected on the Sunshine Coast, compared to about 15 per cent province wide.

Chapman Lake lies near the heart of the park, which includes wetlands, lakes and streams. The lake feeds Chapman Creek, home to Chinook, coho and pink salmon.

It also provides most of the Sunshine Coast’s current water supply, thanks to a small dam on the lake that was installed in the 1970s, decades before the area was protected, which raises the water level by up to three metres.

When drought hit in 2017, an emergency above ground siphon system was used to draw down Chapman Lake temporarily to increase supply and, according to Milne, it “worked like a charm.”

But now a permanent, additional five-metre draw down of the lake is proposed. Underground pipes would be installed, along with a computerized valve that could be activated from offices in downtown Sechelt.

“From an engineering point of view, it’s a cleaner and more permanent solution,” Milne said. “The people who are arguing for that think that a $5 million price tag for a backup supply is a reasonable price to pay.”

Proposal would remove Chapman Lake from park

But the project can only legally proceed if the Chapman Lake watershed is removed from the park, or the entire wilderness area is stripped of park status.

Instead of interfering with the park, Milne and Janyk believe that other solutions —such as water metering, construction of a permanent water reservoir and tapping into aquifers — can meet demand even as the Sunshine Coast population swells and new neighbourhoods clamber up previously forested slopes.

“The regional district has been going full tilt boogie on supporting development without a sufficient water supply,” said Janyk. “And now they expect a provincial park to pay the price.”

Milne said water metering and other measures can address demand even with increased development.

Part of the problem is that lifestyles have changed over the decades and the Sunshine Coast has become more urbanized, he said.

“When we moved here in 1986 people didn’t have nice gardens and fancy green lawns. People are simply using a lot more water in July and August.”

Water metering needed to curb demand

Deborah Curran, a University of Victoria law professor who specializes in water law, said it is not just Sunshine Coast residents who need to alter their expectations when it comes to water use, but everyone in the province.

People need to accept the fact that watering lawns during a summer or fall drought is no longer feasible in light of the “new normal” of climate change, Curran told The Narwhal.

“If you truly account for the ecological and infrastructure costs of delivering water so people can have a green lawn it no longer makes economic sense.”

Curran said ecological infrastructure such as Tetrahedron park should not be compromised in order to deal with water shortages or other crises caused by climate change.

“We cannot weaken our parkland, weaken our protected areas, in response to water shortages that can be taken care of with long-term planning,” she said. “To pit one public good against another, in particular when we have so little in the way of ecological protections, is really not the right approach. “

One effective way to deal with water shortages is to introduce water metering, said Curran. Studies show that metering results in an immediate 25 per cent drop in demand, she said.

When the town of Gibsons recently introduced water metering, demand fell by 50 per cent, pointed out Janyk, who was the town’s mayor for 12 years.

Milne said metering saves significant amounts of water by detecting leaks. A pilot metering project in Sechelt found “a tremendous amount of treated water flowing out of old and leaky pipes,” he said, adding that Sechelt will move to full water metering once borrowing for the project is approved.

Long-term ‘water-centric’ planning required: expert

Curran said water shortages like the one on the Sunshine Coast require “more complex” solutions than the “either, or” options about Tetrahedron park presented to the B.C. environment ministry. Water needs to be addressed in a much more holistic way than simply looking to the nearest source in a pinch, she said.

“We are now in an era where we need to have 100-year plans not just for our drinking water but the way in which we use water as a community.”

The 2016 Water Sustainability Act gives B.C. the ability to engage in necessary long-term “water-centric” planning and decision-making, Curran pointed out.

Implementing water sustainability plans would mean that all decision-makers, from foresters to official community planners, would have to consider impacts on water, allowing for a healthy, watershed-based approach, she said.

“What’s going on in the entire watershed is often not taken into account. We cannot sacrifice other public goods when we have these immediate crises.”

In 2016, the summer was cooler, the fall rains came earlier and the Sunshine Coast only reached Stage 2 water restrictions. Washing windows, driveways and sidewalks was prohibited, while garden watering was only allowed on certain days.

This year, however, an above-normal snowpack is melting rapidly in warm May temperatures.

“It’s depleting very quickly,” Milne said. “That means it won’t be there in late August.”

The B.C. environment ministry pointed out that the 1997 Tetrahedron park management plan allows for the ongoing use of the watershed for domestic water, in the context of future population needs.

BC Parks will not support any option that would see a reduction in the overall area under protection, the ministry said in an email to The Narwhal.

“Unfortunately there is an impression in the public that there are only limited options to be considered when in fact the intent of the consultation is to solicit input on all possible options,” the ministry said. “Feedback from the consultation will provide a clearer indication of the best options moving forward.”

BC parks will ensure that conditions on any permits that might be issued “restrict the use of any additional capacity to emergency use during droughts and that other out of park solutions are developed to reduce future dependence on Chapman Lake water,” the ministry said.

The public consultation process initiated by BC Parks concludes June 8.

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