Letter: Water and drought

Tuesday, November 29 2016

It seems incongruous to discuss water shortage during the wettest autumn weather anyone can remember, but the proposed Potlatch development forces us to think now about next summer’s drought. Severe weather conditions go together: California experienced simultaneous flooding and drought, and extreme October rain does not signal the end of drought on Gabriola. Global warming and drought encompass all the Gulf Islands, but Gabriola has a unique problem as our drought appears to be due not so much to climate change as to years of overusing water.

   In 2010, John Peirce and Nick Doe noted in their study of the hydrogeology of Gabriola that all fresh water coming naturally to the island arrives in the form of rain, that more water has been drawn from aquifers during dry summers than is replaced by winter rains, and that consequently the water level in the aquifers steadily falls. Their conclusions have been confirmed since 2010 by the death of trees and by many dry wells.

The area for which Potlatch is proposed has not been as heavily built upon as some other areas and the aquifers may have been drawn down less, but will be drawn down more quickly than elsewhere if buyers into the development come from cities and have little experience of drought or concern for conservation. Rain on the Potlatch area will not replenish what is used there.

  Gabriolans are generally careful of water, although Peirce and Doe have shown we are not careful enough. Gabriola cannot support its present level of water consumption, and if we are unable to reduce the amount of water each of us uses, the rational step would be to reduce the number of users. It would not be sensible to increase the number of users. 

The Potlatch developer proposes 25 strata titled densities with six or seven of those densities capable of supporting a second residence, or cottage. That indicates 31 or 32 new families, or over 100 new water users.

Each floor of a strata titled house can be put on a separate title and sold separately to increase the developer’s return; there is no reason to believe that will not be done here. A new development will also attract new users to service the development. We do not know how many new water users Potlatch would bring, and the number is meaningless as Gabriola cannot support any more users.

Increasing drought will bring difficult questions for the Trustees. Fracking increases the flow from a well at the expense of neighbouring wells. Should fracking be banned, and which level of government has the power to ban it? How will the Trustees resolve inevitable competing claims to water? Should a roof-fed cistern be required for every house? 

  It is not yet clear how the Provincial Government will use their powers under the new Water Sustainability Act to control the use of groundwater or to establish priorities between users. It has been suggested that existing wells should be registered to secure some kind of priority. This must be clarified.  

The Trustees’ mandate is not to preserve and protect development, nor to preserve and protect people. Their mandate is to preserve and protect the island and its rural focus, balancing the needs of trees, people, agriculture, animals and the bushes on which those animals browse.

 Should the Trustees adopt a policy of increasingly supporting farming? It is the quintessential rural occupation, it uses less water than commercial or residential development, it offers employment on farms in food distribution and in farm servicing and, as the price of food from America rises and the growing season moves north with global warming, local food becomes increasingly attractive.

~ Jamie Lawrence