In the face of climate change, the City of Courtenay is working on an integrated system to handle a resource that knows no boundaries.
Rain: we know it well in our part of the world. But beyond the typical “wet coast” reality, water is very top of mind in the Comox Valley.
We’ve debated water bottling and riverside developments. We’ve experienced boil water advisories, droughts and flooding and we’ve developed plans for a new water treatment facility. We’ve also seen the implementation of the Comox Valley Regional District’s Watershed Protection Plan including the purchase and protection of key lands within the watershed, and the roll out of new community and school education programs under the Connected by Water banner. Watershed protection and water conservation are on our collective radar. And, perhaps most dramatically, these conversations, plans, and projects are all taking place within the context of a changing climate.
Our summers are longer, hotter, and drier. We’re experiencing less snow, more rain, and overall warmer temperatures. It is expected that climate change will increase the severity and frequency of storms. Perhaps you recall the baseball fields in Lewis Park being swapped with salmon and paddlers in 2014, or the 29 days of rain in October 2016. Scientists assure us, more rain is coming.
So where will it all go? How do we work together to ensure we’re prepared to absorb the impacts of a changing climate? What we know for sure is that rainwater cannot be managed in isolation. Rainwater flows through watersheds, and watersheds don’t follow political boundaries. Many wetlands, creeks, and streams cross multiple jurisdictions in the Comox Valley. Much of the rainwater that flows through ends up in the City of Courtenay’s boundaries. Fortunately, the City is getting prepared.
The City is engaged in a suite of initiatives to reduce environmental impacts and build climate resilience. One of these undertakings is an innovative process to examine the relationship between land-use, infrastructure, and the environment called an Integrated Rainwater Management Plan (IRMP). This process began last spring and offers a holistic approach to the complex challenge of managing rain water in our community.
“The IRMP is not just a plan, it’s a process,” Says Jody Rechenmacher, Community Infrastructure Consultant for Urban Systems. “Through the process, the City is working to answer a series of questions: what is the state of the watershed and the drainage services provided by the City? How will factors like community growth and climate change impact the watershed? And how can the City best leverage resources, regional partnerships, engineered infrastructure, and healthy natural systems to maintain or improve the state of the watershed? The IRMP considers a watershed-scale perspective and requires a diverse set of solutions that go far beyond the traditional approach of fixing problems with pipes.”
The IRMP evaluates policies and bylaws for opportunities to protect natural assets and the overall health of the watershed. The process includes taking care of existing infrastructure and natural assets (asset management) and making upgrades to the infrastructure system to manage flooding and protect ecosystems. The IRMP also incorporates natural solutions into rainwater management, identifying opportunities for absorption that don’t require expensive new infrastructure.
“Courtenay Council has clearly expressed that climate change mitigation and adaptation is a priority,” says Ryan O’Grady, Director of Engineering for the City of Courtenay. “There is a desire to challenge the status quo of relying exclusively on traditional engineered infrastructure and instead to explore multi-stakeholder and inter-jurisdictional problems and solutions.”
Collaboration is key. The IRMP development process builds on the success, knowledge, and collaboration established through other multi-jurisdictional projects that have come before it, such as the Comox Lake Watershed Protection Plan, and the work of conservation organizations in our community to protect and restore lands including the Morrison Headwaters, Cumberland Forest, and Kus Kus Sum.
Ultimately the IRMP will guide how rainwater is managed now and into the future. This includes not only the underground infrastructure (pipes, catch basins, dykes, etc.) but also natural assets such as wetlands, creeks, and rivers. Integrated rainwater management moves beyond managing infrastructure assets and reacting to issues as they arise, into a more proactive approach that considers the health of the entire ecosystem and the broader community.
As part of the IRMP development, the City of Courtenay is working with a team to anticipate the future volumes of water that will flow through the rainwater system as our climate changes. An old-school engineering approach would look at what assets are needed, such as concrete, steel, and human-engineered structures, to accommodate those volumes of water. As a result of this process, the conversation has shifted to asking instead: what is the service that needs to be provided, and how can we do that in the most cost-effective way?
“When we consider the services provided by natural assets, in conjunction with engineered infrastructure, it changes the conversation and opens up other potential solutions,” says Lisa Butler, Manager of Engineering Strategy for the City of Courtenay. “As more emphasis is placed on life-cycle costs, and the evolving social and cultural value of certain assets and services, the solution may evolve into a non-traditional, nature-based alternative.”
This evolution is leading many municipal governments, like the City of Courtenay, to new approaches that imitate natural processes and use natural assets to provide municipal services. In 2018, The City of Courtenay was invited to work with the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative to specifically understand the current and possible future roles of natural assets in the Courtenay River corridor in mitigating flood risks in the downtown core.
It’s a win-win for our community. Combining natural and engineered processes has the benefit of increasing the quality and resilience of infrastructure at lower costs. By looking at rainwater management more holistically—meaning what pipes and natural processes can do together to manage rainwater—the service of rainwater management can become more cost-effective and better for our environment.
Humans gravitate to familiar ideas. As with any change initiative, there will likely be a range of responses, and since municipal change takes time, a collaborative approach to identifying any barriers, challenges, opportunities, and leveraging points is of incredible value. The IRMP embraces this process.
The future looks bright for an integrated approach on climate issues. In their call for contributions to the City’s updated Official Community Plan, Council has stated that climate change mitigation and adaptation “be considered at all stages of development of the City’s new Official Community Plan.”
Initiatives like the IRMP matter to the entire Comox Valley. How we manage rainwater directly affects the health of our rivers and oceans, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and our watershed as a whole. Recognizing how the natural systems around us can provide critical and cost-effective municipal services gives our community a greater chance at sustainability. As we shift into an age of climate variability, we need to be sure we’re doing everything we can to adapt and protect the integrity of the natural systems around us.
Water is a critical part of that natural system: from rain replenishing water resources in our watersheds and recharging aquifers to provide drinking water, from the health of our neighbourhood streams and protecting fish habitat, to managing our rainwater holistically and in environmentally responsible way. Water knows no political boundaries and the IRMP recognizes that. It is an initiative that affirms that the Comox Valley is indeed connected by water.