The Comox Lake watershed is beautiful. The bird’s eye view is truly epic. Crystal clear icy water flows down from the Comox Glacier and craggy snow topped mountains, over rolling hills, into lakes, rivers and creeks like the Cruikshank and the Perseverance. It seeps through lush forests and loamy new growth, riparian areas and wetlands, till it arrives in the reservoir basin that is Comox Lake.
We take our fresh water for granted here on Vancouver Island. We live in a rainforest don’t we? But as a community we are waking up to the reality that a secure water supply and a healthy watershed is not a given. It’s a complex goal for any community. Ours is no exception.
This year seems to be all about learning about water in the Comox Valley. From extended boil water advisories and turbidity last winter to the canceled Paddle Festival and record low snow packs, the collective Comox Valley attention has been turned to the elixir of life.
When we look up to the powerful mountains that structure the spine of Vancouver Island we cannot help but be concerned. Those mammoth peaks should be cloaked in white, acting as a giant holding area for fresh clean water to keep the valley lush and green and quenched all summer. But this year they are bare, the lake is low and the earth is already thirsty. Climate change is here and we can no longer count on every winter to leave us the snowy gift of more than enough.
There are times of the year where it feels like there is an endless deluge of water in the Comox Valley, carving its way through mountain corridors, shearing away clay and sediment. According to Mike Herschmiller, the CVRD’s manager of water services, there were times last winter when “we had enough water coming into the lake to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in 2.5 seconds.”
But as quickly as those rains fall from the sky they are swept down the waterways to the Salish Sea to return to the source, where the water cycle begins again. “We do live in a rainforest. We have lots of rain,” says Herschmiller. “Retaining it is the issue. We have six reservoirs around town that store 31 million litres of water, and in summertime, that’s about half a days (usage).”
Our community has limited capacity to store this water, to save it for a “not rainy” day. Creating more capacity for water intake, filtration and storage is a huge financial undertaking for our community. As we grow the pressures mount. But we also have the power as a community to determine how big a cost this will be.
There is very important work currently happening around a Watershed Management Plan, and it can’t come too soon. Championed by the CVRD, the Watershed Advisory Group is a diverse planning body including local government, first nations, logging companies (and the private land owner of the watershed itself), user groups, conservation organizations and watershed and hydrological experts. They are working together to come up with a plan to mitigate the human risks to Watershed Health, an important part of the puzzle. This is the part we can come together on. The need for a unified strategy and clear plan to govern the watersheds is paramount.
But watershed management is about more than the inputs, the source of the water. It is also about the outputs and how we as a community manage our most precious resource as it flows into our farms, urban areas and homes. Mike Herschmiller makes it very clear that conservation is a critical piece of the puzzle. “There are simple things we can do. When water meters go in, the average British Columbian household’s consumption drops from 376 litres per person per day to 229. Updating appliances can make a big difference but the biggest contrast between summer and winter consumption is what we do outdoors. For example, an efficient front loading washing machine can save up over a hundred litres of water per cycle.”
According to the CVRD, in the summer we’re using about three times as much water as during the winter. In addition to watering gardens and lawns we’re also doing crazy stuff like pressure washing driveways and washing vehicles and boats. The responsibility lies with us, to support metering efforts, conservation and incentive programs, smart development and to help to shift our community consciousness away from wasting our fresh water resources this way.
Will we rise to the occasion as a community? I have to believe we will. This community is made up of talented, creative and environmentally aware individuals, families, businesses and organizations that are prepared to face the challenges ahead. Organizations like the Comox Valley Conservation Strategy are proposing exciting solutions as well. If the people lead, the business innovators and government will follow with strong water policy, grey water and rainwater capture technology and other solutions. We need to drive the market and drive the public policy changes.
Compared to so many places in the world, we are in an amazing position to do the right thing. California, and now Washington State, is in real water crisis. We have the opportunity to face challenges long before they get to the level that our neighbours to the south are facing.
Solutions will not come from “us and them” attitudes. It will come through collaboration and a profound shift to a shared value around our fresh water resources. There is a global movement towards looking at community wellbeing through the lens of the watershed, and its time has come for us. From mountain top to the sea, lakes and rivers to aquifers and wells, forests to farmlands, marshes and estuaries, watershed health is at the heart of this, our Land of Plenty.