Health

No longer a rainforest: B.C.’s Sunshine Coast improvises to survive long-term drought | The Narwhal

This story is part of When in Drought, a series about threats to B.C.’s imperilled freshwater systems and the communities working to implement solutions.

Almost buried in sand at the edge of Paul Nash’s prolific urban farm in Sechelt is an inflatable children’s swimming pool, filled to the brim with one of the most precious commodities on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast.

Water.

An unrelenting drought is parching southern communities on the Sunshine Coast, just north of Vancouver, and, as officials warn that the region is on the brink of running out of water, residents are nervously eyeing the long range forecast of dry weather.

After two months with only occasional sprinkles of rain, water levels on Chapman Lake, which supplies water to more than 85 per cent of Sunshine Coast residents, have dropped precipitously.

Pleas to the public to cut water use, enforcement and identification of water profligates or residents with unfixed water leaks, are having some effect, but, without multiple days of more than 25 millimetres of rain a day, combined with a further drop in water usage, the Chapman water supply could run out by late September.

It is obvious that the Sunshine Coast can no longer be considered a rainforest, at least in summer, says Sunshine Coast Regional District chair Lori Pratt, who has been on an emotional roller coaster as the crisis has progressed.

“We really are in a very dire situation,” Pratt says.

“I lose a lot of sleep over this,” she says, wiping back inadvertent tears.

Lori Pratt from the Sunshine Coast Regional District says the region can no longer be considered a rainforest during the consistently dry summer months. Eighty-five per cent of the district obtains drinking water from the Chapman Lake reservoir, which is at severely low levels after a very dry summer.

Even after the rains come, it will not allay concerns that summer droughts are becoming the norm. Stage four water restrictions, which forbid any outside use of tap water, were imposed in 2015 for 22 days, 2017 for 25 days and 2018 for 14 days. 

This year brought the earliest-ever clampdown, with stage four restrictions, meaning kicking in on Aug. 10 and now extending past 30 days with no immediate signs of letting up.

Despite those restrictions, water levels continue to drop and in late August the district opened its Emergency Operations Centre, meaning it is ready for action if a state of emergency is declared.

That would likely mean shutting off all users that are not supporting human health — essentially the hospital and long-term care facilities — firefighting or drinking water, says Remko Rosenboom, Sunshine Coast Regional District general manager of infrastructure services.

Homes could be without water for part of the day and some non-essential industries and businesses could temporarily be forced to close, warns the regional district.

“We have breweries on the coast, we have cement factories on the coast and other companies that are using significant amounts of water and, if every drop counts, every drop counts,” Rosenboom says.

Innovation is thriving as residents figure out how to continue farming or growing vegetable gardens during the drought and the emergency has triggered an extraordinary community effort to deliver totes of water to those in need.

At Ruby’s Run urban farm in Sechelt, Nash is adjusting the hoses on his new swimming pool storage system.

With stage four restrictions, Nash, who intensively farms three-quarters of an acre of leased land, knew his preexisting 1,000-litre storage tank would not be sufficient and racked his brains to come up with water storage ideas.

The answer came as he watched his neighbour’s grandchildren playing in a plastic pool.

“I looked across and thought ‘that’s water storage,’ ” Nash says.

A quick check online showed two pools were available locally and Nash says he “burnt rubber” to get to the store. He set up the 10,000-litre pool before visiting a friend with a well, carting water back in tanks and, finally, setting up pumps for the drip systems that now keep his plants alive.

“At three a.m. I completed it. That was 24 hours for the project, from concept to completion … It’s the cheapest, simplest thing and at the end of the season we can deflate it and roll it up. And it cost me $250,” Nash says.

At Ruby’s Run, the strawberries, potatoes, garlic, carrots, flowers and myriad other fruits and vegetables — many growing in raised boxes above other plantings, allowing run-through drip irrigation to be used twice — produce will be harvested earlier than usual, but, for this year, the farm has dodged a bullet.

However, Sunshine Coast residents are coming to the realization that being on the front line of climate change is likely to mean annual droughts. Many are grappling with the question of whether it is a personal or government responsibility to ensure farms and other businesses have a steady water supply.

Bill Stockwell, owner of Central Coast Concrete and Stockwell Sand and Gravel, said, like many other industries in the area, he has his own water supply through a water licence on a spring on his property. 

“We do have lots of water, we just have a storage problem,” he says, noting that his company recycles all water used for processes such as washing gravel.

“All my water goes straight through wash pads and settling ponds, where the sediment settles out, and then I reuse the water to wash my aggregate, so I use it over and over again. I do lose water to evaporation and stuff that sticks to the rocks, but for the most part, if I didn’t recycle, I wouldn’t have enough water,” he says.

It is difficult to rely on the district water system because water shortages have not been taken seriously, says Stockwell, who believes it will take a full-blown crisis, such as running completely out of water, to get all levels of government working together to solve the problem.

In the meantime, Stockwell is planning on putting in a well for backup and has steel tanks that provide 20,000 gallons of storage on his property.

The neighbouring mine, Lehigh Cement Company, has its own well and recycles water and many other commercial users do the same, he says.

It’s a part of the way many on the Sunshine Coast are bearing the costs of continuing to live and work in the area.

That cost is definitely being felt by farmers, Nash says.

“If we want free water that falls from the sky, we are going to have to pay to store it. If we are going to ask the government to solve the problem, there’s a cost to that too,” Nash says.

“If you haven’t got water, you have nothing, so, whatever it costs, it’s worth it. If doing water management is going to break you, the farm wasn’t viable in the first place,” Nash says, who knows some are already turning to dryland farming, which include techniques and methods to store water and adapt to growing crops without irrigation but within perpetually dry conditions.

At Farmer Dan’s Farm Stand, the piles of tomatoes, garlic and onions did not require intensive watering.

“But I won’t have enough water to be doing new seedings,” says farmer Dan White. “If there’s no rain, I don’t really have the money this year, or the systems in place, to get delivered water onto my crops.

The cost of drilling a deep well can stretch into tens of thousands of dollars, which small farms like White’s, running on marginal profits, cannot afford.

“I hope the carrots have long taproots and, with some mulching, they’ll be able to cruise to maturity … I’m just going to have to ride out the watering restrictions and harvest what I can,” he says.

White, with farming in his blood, has no intention of giving up. “But I’m probably going to have to get a real job over the winter,” he says.

Farmer Dan White of Farmer Dan’s Farm Stand says the drought may force him to seek work outside of farming this winter.

At Hough Heritage Farm, Raquel Kolof, Sunshine Coast Farmers Institute president, invested more than $20,000 in a well and thousands more in electrical and pumping equipment after struggling through previous water restrictions.

Like much of the Sunshine Coast, there is water under the ground on Kolof’s property, but, until a well was dug, much of it was not accessible.

Striding through green pastures, where Berkshire pigs, Icelandic sheep, turkeys and unusual breeds of goats graze together and ducks swim on a series of ponds, Kolof has no doubt drilling a well was money well spent.

“It’s a big financial burden, but, if people can do it, it is well worth it,” says Kolof, who is passionate about the need to produce sustainable local food and wants government to pay more attention to other outdoor water users, such as the construction industry.

A farm with animals feeds the soil and ensures that water goes back into the aquifer, she says, picking up a handful of richly composted dirt.

“This is animal poop in action,” she says.

“When we unfairly look at farms as water users, we are not acknowledging the role that we play in stewarding water,” she says.

Raquel Kolof, president of the Sunshine Coast Farmers Institute, at the Hough Heritage Farm.
Hough Heritage Farm.

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