Diversification of drinking water sources, protection of source area ecosystems, and environmental flows are crucial for the long term sustainability of the local drinking water system.
The Sunshine Coast is experiencing drought. Again. Lawns are brown, farms are suffering, streams are dry and fish are stranded. A week after the IPCC declared Climate Code Red, nearly half the population of the Sunshine Coast is on Stage 4 Water restrictions and wondering if/when a Stage 5 water emergency may be declared. How did we get here?
The Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) supplies drinking water to over 23,000 residents on the Sunshine Coast. The primary source of freshwater is the Chapman/Gray Watershed system. Other drinking water sources in the distribution system include lakes in the Egmont and Pender Harbour and groundwater aquifers in West Howe Sound. Private groundwater wells also make up a small percentage of source supply. As well, the Town of Gibsons supplies around 5000 people with water from “Gibsons Aquifer”. Prior to 2018, the SCRD also supplied water for about ⅓ of the population of Gibsons.
The Sunshine Coast Conservation Association has a long history working together effectively with First Nations, governments, NGO allies, and community to protect and maintain drinking water sources areas on the coast. The organization was born out of a successful campaign to protect the headwaters of the Chapman Creek Watershed through the creation of Tetrahedron Provincial Park in 1997. Since then, we’ve worked consistently to protect the public’s right to control activity in our watersheds and manage them to provide safe, clean drinking water.
A defining moment for the SCCA was in the summer of 2007, when logging in the Chapman sparked a public uproar, with residents blockading logging roads and staging large demonstrations. In response, the SCCA initiated a citizen’s public health complaint, which led to a series of ground-breaking legal actions – in partnership with the SCRD.
Around 2012, a new threat to the watersheds emerged as the Coast began experiencing consistent, prolonged droughts in the summer months which affected water levels in Chapman Lake. By 2015, a looming “water deficit” had reared its head as the SCRD enforced Coast wide emergency water restrictions for nearly six weeks.
In 2017, the Coast once again reached critical Stage 4 water restrictions. In response to this situation, a nervous SCRD board of directors decided to move forward aggressively with a proposal to remove Chapman and Edwards Lakes from Tetrahedron Provincial Park, to prioritize their use as drinking water reservoirs.
Although it is now well understood that source diversification, conservation and ecosystem protection are integral to ensuring the long-term sustainable water supply, the SCRD didn’t always embrace an Integrated Water Management Approach. It relied too heavily and for too long on the Chapman/Gray system.
The Chapman Lake Water Supply Expansion Project, a plan to draw down the lake by blasting a new channel, was an untenable concept environmentally and did not reduce the SCRD’s reliance on a single fragile water source.
Accordingly, in 2018 the BC Ministry of Environment rejected the SCRD application to remove lands from the Tetrahedron Provincial park and further draw down the lakes. The Minister made it clear that the SCRD needed to “significantly reduce or eliminate the dependence on Chapman Lake as a source for additional water supply” and find “alternative solutions beyond the use of Chapman Lake that will improve the existing water supply system.”
The SCRD abandoned the Chapman expansion project and moved forward assertively to diversify and conserve. It pressed forward with community conservation education, water metering and water storage rebate programs. It turned its focus to raw water storage reservoirs and groundwater investigations.
Over the last five years, a lot of work and study has been done to investigate groundwater options. The SCRD has now determined that the prolific aquifers in West Howe Sound (Langdale/Hopkins, Gibsons/Granthams/Elphinstone) could make up the SCRD’s total water deficit for the next 50 years. These aquifers provide clean water, storage and filtration with easy access to existing infrastructure, right beneath our feet.
Currently the SCRD is pursuing development of a highly productive well field in Granthams Landing. The Church Road well field was set to come online this summer with the approval of a water license application to the provincial government. However, the SCRD’s water licence application was delayed when a wash out in Soames Creek damaged monitoring equipment that was gathering essential data to establish the creek’s Environmental Flow needs.
Environmental flows are the amount of water in a creek that is needed to maintain the ecosystem and its values/benefits where there are competing water uses and where flows are regulated. Values and benefits include drinking water, natural infrastructure, fish and habitat to name a few. These values are protected under a host of federal and provincial laws and regulations.
The Provincial government needs up to date data to determine how much water may be drawn from the Church Road well, and the aquifer, without causing adverse impacts to the aquifer and other values. Without this data the water license application can’t move ahead.
As frustrating as it is that the SCRD’s water license application was stalled, by a blow out in the creek that washed away the monitoring equipment no less, these data are crucial to ensuring the well is developed properly, and that the long term health and sustainability of the system is maintained.
On top of all this, we are now facing increased impacts on our ecological systems from climate change. In the coming years we can expect increased temperatures and heat waves and intensified summer droughts and forest fires. Intensified winter rainfall causing flooding and washouts. Continued sea level rise, shoreline erosion and impacts on the marine foreshore. Marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, and reduced oxygen levels affecting ocean ecosystems and fisheries.
Now, more than ever it is crucial for decision makers to ensure that decisions are based on current, quality data.
Working together to ensure sustainable supply
Through our West Howe Sound Watershed Protection project the SCCA is working to support all levels of government to acquire and share data, mapping and other resources needed to ensure decisions around managing and protecting source area ecosystems are based on current, quality data. We are reviewing and analyzing data, technical rationales, policy and legislation which we will share with the SCRD as it explores watershed protection and governance options for the Sunshine Coast.
We encourage community members to learn about the SCRD’s water supply and distribution system and ongoing work to conserve and protect our source area ecosystems and to contact us to learn more about our ongoing work.