Letter: Groundwater Issues - Ministry needs to be involved to help the Trust to “Preserve and Protect”

Tuesday, January 10 2017

The most important issue facing the Island right now and in the future is residential drinking water. For many of us this has become a huge problem. 

This problem increases with the addition of each newly drilled well, rain garden (cistern) and septic system which will be installed as each new residence is built. This is a problem that not only faces our Island, but other Islands as well. Many of the areas in the Trust Council and all levels of government need to be involved in finding a solution; and, until such time as we address this serious problem we should not be considering any new developments create additional problems.

The Potlatch proposal, for example, will affect the potable water supply to the resident areas around it. The problem is complicated and involves water rights and risks of contamination to existing wells. Neither of which are decided within the jurisdiction of the Trust but pertain to the Vancouver Health Authority, the Regional District and the Provincial Government, and therefore, we must invite these overriding authorities to be involved.

When we look at the New B.C. Water Sustainability Act (WSA), it says that domestic users who are registered will be protected according to FITFIR (first-in-time-first-in-right) principle, as of February 2016. This protection encompasses all ground water use, including domestic household use and domestic wells, and although domestic wells are not required to obtain a license it is encouraged that they be registered to be protected.

Under sections 4-5 of the WSA, groundwater is brought into the provisions so as to manage surface and groundwater as a single resource. The new groundwater regulation under the WSA describes provisions for groundwater use and assigning groundwater rights. 

Existing and new groundwater users will be brought into the FITFIR system. The process for transitioning existing users, including how the priority date of groundwater use is determined, are specified in the new Water Sustainability Regulations under the WSA. 

Significantly, in regards to the proposed development and adjacent residents (section 59) prohibits the introduction of foreign matter into wells, and of course, this would include sewage and other contaminants. For special consideration to the Gabriola Trustees: (Section 43) Water Objectives, provides the authority to establish regulations to furnish a more consistent approach to considering water in natural resource decisions and local government planning. The objectives would support decision making to help reduce impacts to and to help sustain water quantity, water quality and also aquatic ecosystems.

There is also extensive reference in the DAI that provides Trustees with guidance and our own OCP, our Island Constitution, says in by-law 2.1 General Residential Policies (Gii.) regulations for impact on adjacent properties:

“…the applicant must provide a report prepared by an independent qualified professional with experience in groundwater hydrology to the satisfaction of the Gabriola Local Trust Committee identifying the zone of influence, stating that the property is capable of producing the stated amount of water with no detrimental effects on wells within the zone of influence, the aquifer and the natural environment.” 

The requirements set down in the OCP are precisely the same as the regulations set down in the WSA and Islands Trust (DAI) Guidelines and need to be followed.  

Moreover, when recent statistics on precipitation levels for Gabriola Island were compiled from May until September (i.e. the period of greatest water stress on local aquifers) it was found that from 2010 to 2016 the average precipitation, even when favorably, considered, was between 30% and 40% of historical levels. This is confirmed by observations made on wells in the immediate neighborhoods of the Potlatch development. 

The assumed 10 -25% recharge rates as proposed in the SRK report must therefore be considered overly optimistic. The subdivision of the Island into water aquifer specific zones is upon reflection of some of the studies used in the compilation of the SRK report (i.e. Pierce and Doe) more than questionable and entirely arbitrary.

A very real fact for those residents in the Lockinvar Lane area is that 8/13 homes on this street alone have water issues and need to supplement their households with purchased water and cisterns. For some this is a relatively recent development (within last 2-3 years). Clearly, there is nothing anecdotal about this. People do not spend thousands of dollars securing a vital resource based on presumed information. Such a decision is driven by need alone. To uphold the SRK report that self admittedly is based upon incomplete, unverified and frequently conjectural data, as the “groundwater bible”, is simply ridiculous. The high ground water yield purported by the SRK in the Lockinvar Lane area is clearly a myth and so to give this document credence, to be more than a very, very, very rough guideline is thoroughly misleading and wrong. 

On the topic of Rain Gardens, the most current information from the RDN Water Budget Project site, is: 

“There are currently no provincial rainwater treatment objectives or standards for characterizing rainwater as a drinking water source. There is currently no comprehensive provincial guidance or framework of requirements for water systems to safely develop and use rainwater for potable purposes. This lack of guidance and standards makes it difficult for water system operators to confidently and consistently address the safety requirements, and makes it difficult for the local health officers to approve rainwater source proposals. Ultimately, this limits the successful utilization of rainwater as a potentially suitable additional water source to increase resiliency in rural areas.” 

This statement from the RDN should be taken as a directive to our local government, the Gabriola Island Trust, that they may not endorse or recommend, never mind, stipulate the implementation of rainwater gathering systems as a potable water source at this time. 

Also, Rain Gardens do not address the issues of contamination of Groundwater by Septic outflow. As Denny (2006) clearly points out, the proposed area has a potential and is more susceptible to contamination due to the following conditions: thin geologic material /soil covering, high slope, rapid conductivity, little filtration creates a quick spread and a greater flow for contaminants to hitch a ride on. 

As you can see the groundwater and potable drinking water issues are complex and there are many risks and problems. In order to address these issues the Trust must look to the overriding authorities and invite their participation. 

The Islands Trust must seek the guidance of all relevant authorities, and in particular, the Ministry of Forests and Resources as the governing authority for groundwater, to ensure that Island Residents in the “zone of influence” are protected from the potentially grave risk of groundwater depletion and contamination.

 The Sounder has correctly indicated that there has been a discussion of Terms of Reference for a private hydrogeologist. In view of the complications and extent of these issues an Independent hydrogeologist appointed by the Ministry is far more impartial, credible, and hence, preferable. 

It is our understanding that the B.C. Ministry of Forests and Lands have a Professional Independent Hydrogeologist. In order for them to work with the Trust they must be formally invited by the Local Authority The Islands Trust to do so. We ask, should an invitation come directly from the Islands Trustees? Or if this is a wider problem that involves other Islands, as well, should the invitation be routed through the Islands Trust Council?

~ Andrew Deggan and Alix Hodson