Water Management on Southern Vancouver Island


This week the nonprofit group Watershed Watch Salmon Society released a report about the state of water in British Columbia (BC). They noted that there are issues with water scarcity and water quality across the province, and selected three specific watersheds as case studies.

They found that almost 63% of British Columbians live in water-stressed areas. What was most interesting was that these water-stressed areas cover only 3.7% of the province, but contain 23% of the population. That right there sets up a problem between supply and demand: when you have that many people relying on rapidly declining water resources.

They also noted, and this was no surprise, that there’s not enough data on water use in British Columbia. I completely agree – for example, everyone on my street has a groundwater well, but we don’t have well permits and there’s no official information in any government database about our well depth, the materials it goes through, the flow rate, or where the recharge location is for the aquifer we’re drawing from. We don’t even know really what aquifer we’re drawing from, as data on groundwater supplies is relatively limited.

Currently, water users do not measure or report their use, groundwater use is only partially integrated into B.C.’s licensing regime, and unauthorized water uses are not tracked in any way.

The other problem is that the population is growing in the very watersheds where water is scarce, putting increasing strain in existing water supplies. There are also issues with increasing winter drought: not enough snow or rain to replenish soil and groundwater aquifers, and ongoing summer drought, during which water use in some rivers is shut down. This has important implications for salmon.

One of the case studies in the report was about one of our local rivers, the Koksilah, where almost 70% of approved water uses extract groundwater. Their analysis showed that our population has risen by 9% from 2009-2016, putting more stress on the water supply. One of the problems with the Koksilah is that it is entirely groundwater fed – there is no lake or snowpack to feed it like the Cowichan River has. So in the last three summers there have been voluntary restrictions on water use by farmers growing hay or corn for silage, to reduce water withdrawals from the groundwater aquifer. The problem is that the government has little to no knowledge about the Koksilah aquifer – it’s extent, it’s level, and whether or not it’s dropping or is replenished by winter rains.

In 2019, most groundwater use remains unquantified. This delay means that the provincial government is not yet able to manage surface water and groundwater as one connected resource.

I would argue that a lot of development in our region is being done without proper analysis of water availability to serve that development. In especially dry summers, for example, a water tanker takes water from the water system up the street from us and drives it down around the corner to top up the well that feeds a residential development there. They don’t have enough water from their own well, so have to pirate it from our groundwater well. The question is – do we know enough about both aquifers to understand what impact this water transfer has on groundwater aquifers? And how realistic is it to keep developing in a region that’s becoming known for water scarcity?

We’ve had our own issues with our well, which I wrote about this past summer. We’re not sure whether the drop in well water level is temporary or permanent, and whether or not it’s on a downward trend. There is no information on the aquifer we’ve tapped into, and no information on how other wells in our neighbourhood are affecting the flow into our well.

The good news is that the Cowichan Watershed Board, which works on issues related to the Cowichan River (including this past summer’s pumping of water from Cowichan Lake into the Cowichan River to augment flows), is incorporating the Koksilah River into it’s management framework. The key in our region is also to forge and maintain relationships with Indigenous groups who rely on these rivers to provide salmon.

The report concludes that our region is ripe for a Water Sustainability Plan which would be developed under the Water Sustainability Act. I think three key things to keep in mind are: (1) increased population and increased building of neighbourhoods that need water; (2) assessment of the impacts of logging in the watershed on streamflow, as there is extensive logging happening in close proximity to local towns; (3) new groundwater licenses should fall under the Water Sustainability Act and not be approved if there is a possibility of significantly drawing down an aquifer; and, (4) the government should take steps to identify, map, and characterize all existing wells like, for example, our residential well. This will help build a network of data that could help understand our local aquifer configuration.

I’m not convinced the current government will do something about water management in our region. While we have a new Water Sustainability Act, it requires the government take action to implement it, and I haven’t seen a lot of that happening.

The report itself comes up with similar recommendations:

  1. British Columbia needs to dedicate significant resources towards improved monitoring and measuring
  2. More resources and a renewed strategy are needed for licensing and managing existing groundwater users, so that all users are in compliance by the 2022 deadline for license applications.
  3. A province-wide legally-enforceable environmental flows regulation must be developed under the Water Sustainability Act.
  4. It is essential that additional resources be dedicated to water management in BC.

I agree heartily with all of these points, though 1 and 4 are pretty similar. But if we want to conserve our most precious resource, one that we can’t live without – as evidenced by the last decade here in the Cowichan Valley – we have to invest time and money into understanding the hydrologic system and our direct impact on it.

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