Brian Mousley

Where’s our water?

Critically low snow pack and a hot, dry summer on the horizon could mean early water restrictions in Port Alberni.

“Water is definitely a basic human right. We need it, we have to have it, we can’t exist without it,” Port Alberni mayor Mike Ruttan told a crowd of concerned residents at Dry Creek on World Water Day.

But doing without might become a reality for Port Albernians as a hotter than usual summer is slated to follow a milder than usual winter.

“We don’t have a lot of snow pack,” city utilities superintendent Brian Mousley said.

“That’s kind of our signal that the glass is full and every sip you take, there’s nothing replenishing it.”

Ruttan agrees.

“This summer there’s going to be some challenges. Challenges on Vancouver Island that we haven’t experienced for a long, long time. There are going to be very low water levels.”

According to Mousley, the mild winter and lack of snow up in the mountains might lead to water restrictions being implemented early this year.

“This year we’re going to monitor that a little more closely,” Mousley said. “I think we’re going to have to supplement this year a lot quicker than the past few years.”

Last year, restrictions started in July after the city’s waterworks crew went up to Lizard Lake, from where water flows into China Creek, to check water levels. They will start monitoring earlier than that this year.

If the city gets put on water restrictions again this year, it could signal the beginning of a worrying trend. Mousley took his job at the city in 2009 and since then, water restrictions have only been implemented twice.

“Last summer and summer of 2009 were the only times in my time here that we’ve gone to first level. I’m not sure we’ve ever gone to level two.”

The first level of outdoor water restrictions restricts non-essential usage such as washing cars, hosing off driveways and using continuous sprinkling. It also reduces lawn watering to three days a week for four-hour chunks of time in the morning and evening.

Further water restrictions limit lawn watering to fewer days a week and ultimately ban it completely.

While the amount of snow that falls in any given year is out of anyone’s control, Ruttan believes there are steps that can be taken to maximize snow retention—and thus water supply—that the region does get.

“If you do not permit any logging in the watershed then you have a far greater retention of water in that area,” he said.

This occurs because logging, even with timely replanting, reduces the natural filtration that old, well established root systems provide.

That could be a concern for the city.

The waterworks crew monitors turbidity levels in the water from China Creek using their SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system.

“It gives us our turbidity; when that starts to climb we look over to Bainbridge Lake,” Mousley said, adding that at around 15 millimetres of rain the city will look to switch.

Water from China Creek and Bainbridge Lake will then go through the city’s Bainbridge pump station and water treatment plant, where it’s disinfected, utilities technician Roberto Polles said.

“We have chlorine that goes in as [the water is] flowing and then that all feeds into town.”

The city is currently in the process of adding UV treatment to comply with the federal 4-3-2-1 drinking water guidelines at a cost of $4 million.

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However, with the current quality of its water supply and the redundancy built into the system, the city has a filtration waiver from Island Health that allows it to skip the water filtration portion of the drinking water guidelines for now.

The Comox Valley is not so lucky and has been forced to build a filtration plant at an estimated cost of $50-70 million.

Logging also speeds the melting off of any snow pack that does accumulate on the mountains that supply the city’s watershed.

It’s water that desperately needs to be retained.

It all boils down to who controls the China Creek watershed, where the city’s primary water sources—China Creek and Bainbridge Lake—are located. Currently, Island Timberlands (IT) owns the land.

Privately owned forest land is governed separately from Crown land and unless legislation changes, the municipalities whose watersheds are privately owned have no say in a logging company’s practices.

While the city meets with Island Timberlands regularly, negotiations between the two don’t address the real problem, Ruttan said. As long as IT follows regulations set forth by the Managed Forest Council, the company is free to log the watershed.

And the only way to change that is at the provincial level.

“We have to work with the provincial government to make sure we have access to legislative support and to make sure that we have access to financial support,” Ruttan said.

“We’re continuing our negotiations with the local forest companies but the ultimate goal is for us as a city to actually control our whole watershed.”

If the city isn’t able to get that provincial backing, it leaves them hard pressed to deal with water supply issues, whether caused by logging or by climate change.

It’s a paradox. The city is charged with supplying clean drinking water to its residents but has no control over the land usage of a watershed it does not own.

It’s a delicate balancing act, Ruttan said.

“Forest companies have a commercial right to access what we own. But we as citizens have a human right to access what we need. And that can become the conflict.”

Getting the provincial backing for the protection of the city’s watershed has been an ongoing concern for the city.

“We have a watershed but we don’t own it. We share it, we share it with the timber companies. If that’s going to change it’s going to change by the communities on Vancouver Island getting together and focusing our concerns as communities with the provincial government,” Ruttan said.

“One community at a time, frankly, isn’t strong enough. All of the communities speaking with the same voice… then the provincial government needs to sit up and pay attention.”

To that end, Ruttan said a motion would be raised at the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities later in March.

“The motion is coming through the regional district to specifically address this and it’ll become a long political process that will unroll however it unrolls, over however many months and years it takes to get there.”

Coun. Denis Sauve doesn’t have much faith in the provincial process.

“My patience is wearing thin on the matter. I keep on hearing a lot of diplomatic issues and great relationships and so forth but my patience is limited.”

Sauve emphasized that he has nothing against logging but that he is worried as to the impacts on the city’s water.

“They will log. They have every right to log. All we’re asking is for the protection of the watershed.”

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