Labour Day this year brought an abrupt change in season: suddenly it was fall, with grey skies and cooling rain. It was with mixed feelings that I said goodbye to summer, but I was happy to see the rain. My local creek, Piercy Creek, is running again. Rain is gracing many parts of the province, and news headlines have changed to topics other than drought and wildfires.
But let’s not forget: Eastern Vancouver Island was so parched this summer that the water supply in our rivers (and possibly some aquifers) couldn’t meet social, economic and ecosystem needs. This is what provincial water managers call “Extremely Dry,” or “level 4” drought. In 2015 and 2016 we also hit level 4 drought, and there is evidence that we can expect more of the same in the future. So while we talk about water shortages as temporary problems, this is misleading: we have a long-term problem.
Climate forecasts agree that summers are getting longer and hotter, and that precipitation patterns are changing towards more winter rain and less snowpack. Snow in the mountains provides slow-release water storage, and less of it means lower river flows in summer.
The impacts of drought don’t stop with the mere change of season. Agriculture is the biggest user of water on Vancouver Island, and a scarcity of water affects the viability of agricultural businesses. In the short term, water scarcity can cause crop damage and shortages of water for livestock. Over the longer term, it affects the types of crops and business opportunities available to farmers.
Low flows also affect our salmon. Salmon streams on Vancouver Island ran critically low this year, including the Koksilah River in the Duncan area. For the second summer, provincial officials were considering issuing flow protection orders to Koksilah water users, in case voluntary conservation measures weren’t enough. These are new measures under B.C.’s updated water law, which require water users to cut back or cease using their water to ensure the river does not dry up.
Rainfall has ended the crisis in the Koksilah, but it doesn’t change the fact that the salmon populations are under stress, here and elsewhere in B.C., due to low flows and high temperatures. If we are serious about rebuilding depleted salmon runs, we will need to get serious about tackling water scarcity.
Worries about water shortages were brought into stark relief this summer in another way: through a rezoning request to allow water bottling in the Merville area, from an aquifer that underlies a large portion of the Comox Valley. An intense public debate ensued regarding the best use of our shared water. While the necessary zoning was not granted, the debate has only gone dormant until the next time that our waters are perceived to be under threat.
Where is the good news? There are some encouraging signals. For one, a recent opinion poll shows that British Columbians care a lot about water: they say that water is our most precious natural resource, now and into the future. They are also quite worried about water scarcity, drought, floods, and impacts on species like salmon and orcas. Worried citizens might not seem like good news, but high levels of concern are helping shape a new political environment. At their recent convention, B.C. municipalities endorsed a new watershed governance model that supports more local say over how water is used and managed.
This groundswell of concern and interest bodes well for our local waterways. In my opinion, engaged citizens and local solutions are always for the best. While we face tough problems that require new solutions, working together to solve them is going to become the new way – perhaps the only way – to prepare for our new water reality.
Tanis Gower has been working to restore aquatic ecosystems and advocate for good water policies for the last 20 years. She is a registered professional biologist from the Comox Valley who works on projects for Watershed Watch Salmon Society, local government, and others.