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
brian smith from persephone brewing

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.

Water.

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.

Lori Pratt from the Sunshine Coast Regional District says the region can no longer be considered a rainforest during the consistently dry summer months. Eighty-five per cent of the district obtains drinking water from the Chapman Lake reservoir, which is at severely low levels after a very dry summer.

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.

However, Sunshine Coast residents are coming to the realization that being on the front line of climate change is likely to mean annual droughts. Many are grappling with the question of whether it is a personal or government responsibility to ensure farms and other businesses have a steady water supply.

Bill Stockwell, owner of Central Coast Concrete and Stockwell Sand and Gravel, said, like many other industries in the area, he has his own water supply through a water licence on a spring on his property. 

“We do have lots of water, we just have a storage problem,” he says, noting that his company recycles all water used for processes such as washing gravel.

“All my water goes straight through wash pads and settling ponds, where the sediment settles out, and then I reuse the water to wash my aggregate, so I use it over and over again. I do lose water to evaporation and stuff that sticks to the rocks, but for the most part, if I didn’t recycle, I wouldn’t have enough water,” he says.

It is difficult to rely on the district water system because water shortages have not been taken seriously, says Stockwell, who believes it will take a full-blown crisis, such as running completely out of water, to get all levels of government working together to solve the problem.

In the meantime, Stockwell is planning on putting in a well for backup and has steel tanks that provide 20,000 gallons of storage on his property.

The neighbouring mine, Lehigh Cement Company, has its own well and recycles water and many other commercial users do the same, he says.

It’s a part of the way many on the Sunshine Coast are bearing the costs of continuing to live and work in the area.

That cost is definitely being felt by farmers, Nash says.

“If we want free water that falls from the sky, we are going to have to pay to store it. If we are going to ask the government to solve the problem, there’s a cost to that too,” Nash says.

“If you haven’t got water, you have nothing, so, whatever it costs, it’s worth it. If doing water management is going to break you, the farm wasn’t viable in the first place,” Nash says, who knows some are already turning to dryland farming, which include techniques and methods to store water and adapt to growing crops without irrigation but within perpetually dry conditions.

At Farmer Dan’s Farm Stand, the piles of tomatoes, garlic and onions did not require intensive watering.

“But I won’t have enough water to be doing new seedings,” says farmer Dan White. “If there’s no rain, I don’t really have the money this year, or the systems in place, to get delivered water onto my crops.

The cost of drilling a deep well can stretch into tens of thousands of dollars, which small farms like White’s, running on marginal profits, cannot afford.

“I hope the carrots have long taproots and, with some mulching, they’ll be able to cruise to maturity … I’m just going to have to ride out the watering restrictions and harvest what I can,” he says.

White, with farming in his blood, has no intention of giving up. “But I’m probably going to have to get a real job over the winter,” he says.

Farmer Dan White of Farmer Dan’s Farm Stand says the drought may force him to seek work outside of farming this winter.

At Hough Heritage Farm, Raquel Kolof, Sunshine Coast Farmers Institute president, invested more than $20,000 in a well and thousands more in electrical and pumping equipment after struggling through previous water restrictions.

Like much of the Sunshine Coast, there is water under the ground on Kolof’s property, but, until a well was dug, much of it was not accessible.

Striding through green pastures, where Berkshire pigs, Icelandic sheep, turkeys and unusual breeds of goats graze together and ducks swim on a series of ponds, Kolof has no doubt drilling a well was money well spent.

“It’s a big financial burden, but, if people can do it, it is well worth it,” says Kolof, who is passionate about the need to produce sustainable local food and wants government to pay more attention to other outdoor water users, such as the construction industry.

A farm with animals feeds the soil and ensures that water goes back into the aquifer, she says, picking up a handful of richly composted dirt.

“This is animal poop in action,” she says.

“When we unfairly look at farms as water users, we are not acknowledging the role that we play in stewarding water,” she says.

Raquel Kolof, president of the Sunshine Coast Farmers Institute, at the Hough Heritage Farm.
Hough Heritage Farm.

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.

Casandra Fletcher, board chair of the One Straw Society, says many farmers experienced panic when the stage four water restrictions were brought in for some regions within the Sunshine Coast Regional District.
Freshly watered kale at the One Straw Society’s Tiny Farm.

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.

Brian Smith from Persephone Brewing Company fills a water tank as part of Project Water Box.

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.

Patrick Connelly from Sunday Cider.
“We don’t want to plant and pray, we need to take rational measures.”

“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.”

The grounds at Sunday Cider.

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.

“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.

Chapman Creek.

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.”

Ian Rogers of Shady Hazel Farm shows off his pumpkin crop.
Lush cosmos and dahlias grow at Shady Hazel Farm.

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.

Michelle Lewis, natural asset technician for the town of Gibsons, and Machado, pose for a photo.

The approach, now being emulated in communities around the world, recognizes the links between cutblocks on the slopes of Mount Elphinstone, which could affect infiltration of the aquifer, to the state of foreshore eelgrass beds.

“What we’re saying is that there’s only one water, whether it’s in the ocean or it’s raining or it’s in the creek and in the aquifer. It’s an interconnected system,” Machado says.

Research has found that rain that falls on top of Mount Elphinstone percolates through the aquifer and takes nine years to get to the primary well in Gibsons.

“It is ultra-filtered. That’s why it is considered one of the world’s best waters,” Machado says. 

A complication is the different jurisdictions that can affect the watershed and Gibsons is working with the Sunshine Coast Regional District, the provincial government, First Nations and private landowners, trying to get everyone on the same page.

One issue is that the town has no control over development in the watershed and some rezonings or complaints about contamination are not even referred to the town by the province, Beamish says.

“We’ve had recent complaints from the public about things going on in the watershed area, particularly with respect to the cement plant and the asphalt storage area, the ministry comes in and investigates and files a report on a public website. There’s no sharing of that information with the town or the [regional district],” Beamish says.

“When you have an investigation of a contaminated site within our watershed, which affects our drinking water, we would like to be informed.”

Gibsons, which is working with the regional district and shishalh and Squamish nations, wants the province to support a regional watershed governance model, possibly under the Water Sustainability Act, which was brought in by the provincial government five years ago. So far, it has barely been implemented and there are no water sustainability plans that have been crafted under the new act.

“The province is slowly coming around, but communities haven’t been empowered in B.C. to collectively govern watersheds,” Machado says.

That is disappointing as, when the legislation was being discussed, it was anticipated there would be at least five plans in place by now and many regions, such as the Sunshine Coast, Cowichan and Skeena urgently need such plans, says Oliver Brandes, co-director of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance.

“The drought has revealed many of the concerns as even the modest tools like critical flow protections or water objectives are not being deployed,” he says.

The province must make it a priority to finish the work it started, Brandes says.

“No water sustainability plans have been started, no water objectives have been set, water licence holders still do not have to account for their water use and groundwater licensing is superficially underway as timelines drag out,” he says.

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 and concerns are mounting.”

Meanwhile, Machado would like to see the Sunshine Coast Regional District adopt some of the same policies and methods that Gibsons has put in place to protect its water.

“Their average resident uses almost three times as much water as our average resident and there’s no justification other than they don’t have a meter, or the right pricing, or that all the leaks have been fixed. Those are the three things they need to do,” he says.

The Narwhal’s When in Drought series is funded by the Real Estate Foundation of BC, which administers the Healthy Watersheds Initiative, and the BC Freshwater Legacy Initiative, a project of the MakeWay Foundation. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, no foundation or outside organization has editorial input into our stories.

Update Sept. 12, 2021 at 9:47 a.m. PT: This article was updated to correct an arithmetic error: the 100 new totes carrying 1,000 litres of water amount to 100,000 litres of new storage and not one million as previously stated in a quote. The quote has been updated to reflect this fact.

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