Can green innovations stop polluted stormwater from killing our waters?

Can green innovations stop polluted stormwater from killing our waters?

Grasses ready to plant in the rain gardens that line Courtenay’s Fifth Street renovation. George Le Masurier photo

Can green innovations stop polluted stormwater from killing our waters?

By George Le Masurier

First in a series

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans slapped a ban on both personal and commercial shellfish harvesting throughout Baynes Sound this week because Sunday’s heavy rainfall, which came “after a prolonged dry spell,” will “adversely affect marine water quality.”

It’s a regular notice the DFO issues around most urbanized regions of Vancouver Island this time of year, and it usually lasts for more than a few days.

Why? Because every time it rains after a dry period, it’s as if a giant toilet flushes animal feces, fertilizers, pesticides, oils, road salts, heavy metals and other contaminants into our municipal stormwater systems, which in turn send torrents of polluted water directly into our watersheds, killing fish, eroding property and making our waters unsafe for shellfish harvesting.

This is not a new problem. For the past 100 years, urban development has replaced natural vegetated land with impervious surfaces like roads and parking lots. This has diminished the amount of rainwater absorbed into the ground and reduced the dispersal of precipitation back into the atmosphere from trees, which do the heavy lifting, and other plants, via a process called evapotranspiration.

As a result, surface runoff has become the primary means of rainwater drainage.

To control flooding, Comox Valley municipalities, like other local governments around the world, invested millions of dollars over time in underground infrastructure to channel rainwater runoff into rivers or streams. This not only polluted these waterways and killed wildlife, but the increased volume and speed of the moving water caused erosion and other flooding risks by altering the natural hydrologic cycle.

Even today, when streams get in the way of development, they are often diverted into pipes and buried beneath buildings and parking lots, which greatly increases the flow rate of stormwater and is more likely to cause erosion in a stream’s natural sections.

Comox’s Golf Creek is a prime example. Eighty-six percent of the once flourishing natural stream flowing into Comox Harbor has been buried beneath residential streets, the Comox Mall and the Berwick Retirement Community. It’s polluted after heavy rains and a downstream property owner is currently suing the town over erosion caused by the creek’s sudden fast flows and large volumes.

Former Comox Department of Fisheries and Oceans Officer Chris Hilliar says the problem with stormwater runoff is just the story of urban development gone wrong.

“Humans have an order to their development process: first we log it, then we farm it, then we pave it,” he told Decafnation. “Fish can get along with forestry, if it’s done right; they can get along with farming, if it’s done right; but, concrete and pavement are killers, a death knell to streams and the aquatic life within them.”

The list of problems caused by contaminated stormwater runoff goes beyond erosion and flooding.

Stormwater runoff is the main reason why many urban streams are devoid of fish or linger on aquatic life-support, and why these streams can pose a public health risk for children who play in them.

Stormwater runoff is the top non-point source of oil from human activity into North America’s oceans, according to the National Research Council. And it has been identified as the source of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that are harming British Columbia’s killer whale population, according to another NRC paper.

“It’s an iterative process. Every municipality is on a continuum of change; modernizing, moving forward with advances in knowledge” — Ryan O’Grady

It sounds like an irreversible situation whose remedy is too expensive to undertake. In a 2012 meeting with the Comox Valley Conservation Partnership, Town of Comox Public Works Superintendent Glenn Westendorp said the municipality was facing about $160 million in unfunded infrastructure liabilities that include fixing and replacing stormwater pipes.

“We know the bill is coming to us down the road and we don’t see the means of paying for it,” Westendorp was quoted as saying in the society’s newsletter.

But a shift in thinking about traditional methods of handling stormwater began to occur during the 1980s and 1990s toward constructing wetlands and ponds to detain rainwater long enough for contaminates to settle out and allow some water to infiltrate back into the ground. This gave hope there was a means of cleaning our streams and extending the life of municipal infrastructure.

Today, there’s been a further shift toward a recognition that nature itself cleans and controls rainwater better than any engineered solution. This new emphasis attempts to imitate nature with pervious surfaces, downspout disconnection, rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs and rainwater harvesting. And the prospects have excited many municipal engineers and environmentalists.

But the wheels of change turn slowly.

“Any change in regulations, such as we’re seeing for stormwater, does not go from 0 to 100 miles per hour,” Ryan O’Grady, Courtenay’s director of engineering services told Decafnation. “It’s an iterative process. Every municipality is on a continuum of change; modernizing, moving forward with advances in knowledge.”

And change also requires elected officials to pass new policies and update bylaws that give municipal staff the authority to require LID and green infrastructure. Without legal regulations, not all developers and property owners will embrace the movement, because these rainwater features take up space that some are loathe to forfeit.

Local governments have made progress

Almost all BC communities now follow a method that measures its organizational capacity for maintaining infrastructure to ensure sustainable service delivery. It’s a framework that Courtenay Chief Administration Officer David Allen helped create in his role as Co-Chair of Asset Management BC.

And Courtenay has launched a pilot project with the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative, which attempts to value a municipalities’ natural assets and is working with the Public Sector Accounting Board to change accounting methods to allow for this approach.

“We are using these methods to develop ways to use a combination of engineered assets and natural assets to replace our existing stormwater and flood management systems,” Allen told Decafnation.

In its recently completed renovation of Fifth Street, the City of Courtenay narrowed the roadway (reducing impervious surface area) and added rain gardens to capture runoff and encourage infiltration. The city plans to develop its first Integrated Stormwater Management Plan in 2019 that could set a new, greener standard for stormwater management in the municipality.

The Town of Comox has developed a Stormwater Management Plan for the North East Comox Neighbourhood — lands near the Comox Airport — that incorporates the latest best practices for low-impact development (LID) and green infrastructure regulations, although these have not yet been made into enforceable bylaws.

Cumberland added bioswales along Bevan and Cumberland roads when they were renovated in 2017, and may include rain gardens in its upcoming downtown redevelopment plan.

Other communities have taken big leaps forward

The City Victoria has created a new utility tax to fund its future cost of maintaining stormwater infrastructure and to encourage residents and developers to adopt green infrastructure and low-impact development designs. In most communities, stormwater infrastructure costs are paid out of general revenue.

Victoria residents are now taxed separately for the stormwater that leaves their property. In other words, the more impervious surfaces  and the fewer onsite mitigations you have, such as rain gardens and rock pits, the more you will pay.

Victoria joined Richmond, BC, and hundreds of other cities across Canada and the world that now expect residents and developers to manage their own rainwater, lessening the burden on municipalities.

It’s the theory behind Chinese landscape architect Kongjian Yu’s “sponge cities” concept, a way to describe the capacity of an urban landscape to absorb rainwater naturally. Major world cities have jumped on the idea. Berlin, Germany, adopted a city-wide Sponge City Strategy in 2017.

Since 2009, Toronto, Ont. has required buildings over 2,000 square metres to have green roofs, which use several layers of soil to grow plants that capture and release rainwater, slowing the rush of water through the city’s stormwater pipes.

The list and variety of innovations for managing stormwater through green infrastructure is long and growing.

Municipalities in the Comox Valley and elsewhere have focused heavily on drinking water and wastewater treatment in the past. But now their attention has turned sharply toward improving how we manage stormwater.

The change may seem to be coming too late for streams, like Golf Creek in Comox, that are almost entirely buried and channelized. But challenging initiatives like the 100-year plan to restore Bowker Creek in Victoria and the campaign to save the Morrision Creek headwaters between Courtenay and Cumberland may someday restore fish in our streams and keep our waters open to shellfish harvesting.

 

GLOSSARY OF STORMWATER TERMS

 

Bioswales — A stormwater conveyance system similar, but larger than a rain garden (see below).

Evaporation — As water is heated by the sun, surface molecules become sufficiently energized to break free of the attractive force binding them together, and then evaporate and rise as invisible vapour in the atmosphere.

Green infrastructure — Any natural or built system that provides ecological benefits and help to maintain pre-development hydrology. It encompasses natural features like streams, wetlands, forests and parks, as well as engineered systems that manage urban runoff.

Groundwater — Subterranean water is held in crack and pore spaces. Depending on the geology, the groundwater can flow to support streams. It can also be tapped by wells. Some groundwater is very old and may have been there for thousands of years.

Hydrologic cycle — The endless circulation of water. From the beginning of time when water first appeared, it has been constant in quantity and continuously in motions. The same water molecules have been transferred time and time again from the oceans and the land into the atmosphere by evaporation, dropped on the land as precipitation and transferred back to the sea by rivers and ground water.

Low-impact development (LID) — The systems and practices that use or mimic natural processes that result in the infiltration, evapotranspiration or use of stormwater in order to protect water quality and associated aquatic habitat.

Percolation — Some of the precipitation and snow melt moves downwards, percolates or infiltrates through cracks, joints and pores in soil and rocks until it reaches the water table where it becomes groundwater.

Precipitation — Rain, snow or hail from clouds. Clouds move around the world, propelled by air currents. For instance, when they rise over a mountain range, they cool, becoming so saturated with water that water begins to fall as, snow or hail, depending on the temperature of the surrounding air.

Rain garden — A miniature wetland in a residential setting, lower than the adjacent grade to collect rainwater from roofs, driveways or streets, thus allowing infiltration into the ground.

Runoff — Excessive rain or snowmelt can produce overland flow to creeks and ditches. Runoff is visible flow of water in rivers, creeks and lakes as the water stored in the basin drains out.

Transpiration — Water vapour is also emitted from plant leaves by a process called transpiration. Ever day an actively growing plant transpires five to 10 times as much water as it can hold at once.

Water table — The level at which water stands in a shallow well.

 

 

Morrison Creek headwaters are unique on Vancouver Island

Morrison Creek headwaters are unique on Vancouver Island

Morrison Creek Streamkeepers President Jan Gemmell tells her latest tour group about the property owner’s, the late Beecher Linton, favorite spot. Gallery below. George Le Masurier photo

Morrison Creek headwaters are unique on Vancouver Island

By George Le Masurier

Jim Palmer and Jan Gemmell, along with David Stapley, guided nearly a dozen people Nov. 24 through the first, small portion of the Morrison Creek headwaters that the Comox Valley Lands Trust intends to purchase and preserve.

The tour was the latest of many that the Morrison Creek Stream Keepers have conducted on the 55 acre property owned by the late Beecher Linton since the 1960s, located to the south of Lake Trail Road and just north of the Inland Highway.

The Lands Trust identified the Morrison headwaters among the top three properties in the Comox Valley to acquire and conserve because of its high biodiversity values and its crucial role in sustaining water quality and quantity in the rest of the watershed. Other streams and creeks near the urbanized areas of the Valley have been developed to various degrees, compromising their ability to support robust fish and wildlife populations and sustain stream flow and water quality.

“It’s highly unusual to have have an intact headwaters on Vancouver Island,” Jim Palmer said. “And even more odd that it’s entirely spring-fed.”

The springs are seepage from the deep groundwater flows of Comox and Maple lakes that become a multitude of open tributaries at the base of an escarpment just below Bevan Road. Together, they become Morrison Creek, which empties into the Puntledge River.


“It’s a wilderness oasis unaffected by human disturbances”


Stapley told the tour group that about 88 percent of $870,000 acquisition cost for the Linton property has been raised. But the CVLT wants to acquire and conserve the entire watershed, which measures about 600 acres and is owned by the Hancock Timber Resource Group. The whole watershed is roughly the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

A 24-acre parcel of the watershed has already been preserved by the BC Government and known as the Beecher Linton Conservation Area.

Jim Palmer, currently vice-president of the Morrison Creek Stream Keepers and a member for more than 20 years, said the 55-acre Linton site not only includes some of the many tributaries that comprise Morrison Creek, but it’s also the location of the historical Leung family farm. During the early 1900s, the Leungs supplied the main agricultural products that sustained the early settlers of Cumberland and Courtenay.

It’s also the site of the Gwilt logging company that operated a sawmill on the property, which burned down in the early 1920s, and the China Trail, a wagon road that linked the Leung farm with the growing communities.

Palmer, Gemmell and Stapley pointed out numerous coho salmon making their way up the creek, a long journey from the Strait of Georgia and the Puntledge River and turning up Morrison just below the Puntledge rapids. The headwaters regularly has coho and pink salmon, while chum and trout stay in its lower reaches.

FURTHER INFORMATION: To support the Morrison Creek acquisition and additional information, click here

Jan Gemmell, president of the Morrison Creek Stream Keepers, pointed out that the creek is also home to the Morrison Creek lamprey, a unique variation of the common Western Brook Lamprey found on the coast. It is only found in Morrison Creek. It is distinguished by being polymorphic, meaning both parasitic and non-parasitic. Male Morrison lampreys make their nests by carry pebbles in their mouths, one at a time, and shaking their bodies to create indentation in the stream bed.

Because the creek is completely natural, Palmer said it looks “untidy,” with logs and rocks strewn about that have created miniature dams and reservoirs. But Palmer said these unruly natural formations actually play a major role in the creek’s health.

As the stream carries sediment down, gravel builds up behind the log jams while deep pools are created by cascading water in front of them. Both serve a function for fish to navigate up stream.

Different fish prefer different types of stream beds, from coarse to fine. And the interplay between the type of stream bed and the current determines the speed of the water at any given time, creating a variety of micro-habitats. And the wood in the water indirectly serves as a breeding ground for aquatic invertebrates, the flies that fish love to feast on.

The importance of the whole Morrison headwaters extends beyond the creek itself and its tributaries. It’s a vast, bio-diverse and thriving ecosystem of swamps, marshes and beaver ponds. “It’s a wilderness oasis unaffected by human disturbances,” Palmer said.

The Comox Valley Lands Trust has until March 31 or next year to raise the final $100,000.

“But don’t let that stop you from donating right now,” Stapley said, because the Lands Trust needs to have additional funds to launch the coming campaign to protect the entire Morrison Creek watershed.

Morrison Creek Stream Keepers have taken more than 130 people on tours of the Morrison Creek headwaters in groups ranging from one to a dozen. At times they have taken three tours in a single week. The longest lasting tour took five hours and covered most of the property.

 

 

On Lazo, Comox shows no accountability

By Judy Morrison I attended the recent Town of Comox Open House where one of the featured topics was the Lazo Road shoreline. I have learned much since that date. I now know a lot more about shores and water and and their "systems." I have also learned more about...

Work stopped on Comox rip rap project

Second update: Work on the project resumed on Wednesday, June 29. This article was updated at 10 a.m. after receiving information from the Town of Comox regarding the work stoppage. Work stopped almost as soon as it began on the Cape Lazo shoreline stabilization...

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Winter storms mean flood risk along the Oyster

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Winter storms mean flood risk along the Oyster

By George Le Masurier

With winter rain storms building off the Vancouver Island coast, the risk of flooding looms over those who live along the Oyster River.

The Comox Valley Regional District will host an information sharing open house at 6:30 pm on Thursday, Nov. 22 at the Oyster River Fire Hall, 2241 Catherwood Road. CVRD staff will present a recently completed flood risk assessment of the area, along with maps and other information from the study.

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On Lazo, Comox shows no accountability

By Judy Morrison I attended the recent Town of Comox Open House where one of the featured topics was the Lazo Road shoreline. I have learned much since that date. I now know a lot more about shores and water and and their "systems." I have also learned more about...

Work stopped on Comox rip rap project

Second update: Work on the project resumed on Wednesday, June 29. This article was updated at 10 a.m. after receiving information from the Town of Comox regarding the work stoppage. Work stopped almost as soon as it began on the Cape Lazo shoreline stabilization...

Let’s make it socially unacceptable to feed deer

I’m done with deer. On any given day, small herds of deer eat their way through local neighborhoods. They wander onto busy streets and stop traffic, sometimes with fatal results. They damage property, threaten people and pets, pose health risks and attract dangerous...

On Oceans Day, tiny celebrations

Thanks to a Canadian initiative at the 1992 Earth Summit, the world celebrates Oceans Day on June 8. Unfortunately, our oceans haven’t done so well lately, putting a little damper on the party. We’ve overfished and under protected them, polluted them and ignored the...

Should UBC divest from fossil fuel companies?

Should the University of British Columbia buy shares in and take profits from fossil fuel companies or invest in funds and projects directly linked to controversial energy projects? The UBC Board of Governor’s considered that question after some faculty and staff...

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The growing pains of updating BC’s water law

The growing pains of updating BC’s water law

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The growing pains of updating BC’s water law

By Gavin MacRae

Watershed Sentinel writer Gavin MacRae examines how well the new Water Sustainability Act is working in the context of a water bottling controversy in Merville

 

BC’s original Water Act was a relic, drafted when Vancouver was still a fledgling city and before Canada’s first airplane took to the skies. It would govern water use in the province for over a century, until in 2016, a long overdue replacement arrived: the Water Sustainability Act (WSA). Conceived after a long period of public consultation, the WSA aims to “address the new challenges of the 21st century, including climate change, population growth and increasing pressure on water resources.”

This may come as surprise to residents of the community of Merville, on Vancouver Island. The hamlet has been roiling since residents learned of a commercial groundwater licence, granted by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development (FLNRORD), to sell water from an aquifer beneath Merville.

The licence was approved without public notification, and against the wishes of K’omoks First Nation and the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD). Amid public outcry over the ministry decision, the plan was halted when the CVRD denied a rezoning application by the well licence holder that would have allowed the proposed bottling business to process the water at the well site.

Opponents of the proposed business are concerned increased traffic and noise will ruin the bucolic ambiance of the small community, and worry about the effect the business could have on their own wells. Some residents said the business would set a precedent of for-profit extraction of a common resource, squandering precious groundwater when water scarcity from climate change looms.

An unassuming rural lot with a mobile home and a few scattered outbuildings is the epicentre of the controversy

Bruce Gibbons lives down the road from the proposed bottled water business, and is a vocal critic. He said residents were unaware of the licence until the rezoning decision came before the CVRD. After finding out about the well licence “through the neighbourhood grapevine,” Gibbons rallied neighbours to attend the zoning meeting. “We packed the CVRD board room and overflowed into the parking lot, on a Monday morning,” he said.

Since then, Gibbons has launched an unsuccessful appeal against the well licence, formed an advocacy group called the Merville Water Guardians, and had an independent hydro-geology consultant review the technical reports underpinning FLNRORD’s decision to approve the well.

The neighbourhood

An unassuming rural lot with a mobile home and a few scattered outbuildings is the epicentre of the controversy. It is the home of married couple Christopher MacKenzie and Regula Heynck, holders of the well licence.

MacKenzie was visibly frustrated talking about his so-far thwarted plans to operate the water business. He said social-media-fuelled fear from well-meaning but misguided activists factored in to his zoning defeat. He also viewed the denied rezoning as a pre-meditated campaign by officials at the regional district. “[The CVRD] came up with a plan to direct us down the wrong garden path, knowing all along we had the right zoning, that we exhausted all our avenues chasing a rezoning application.”

“We’re not the first people to do this,” said MacKenzie, “we’re just the same as everybody else, a young family with a little bit of luck, who have drilled water and want to offer it locally to poorly water-serviced communities.”

The 10,000 litre-per-day draw of well water (roughly equivalent to 10 homes) was negligible, said MacKenzie. “How are we going to drain the aquifer when we’re only allowed to take 10,000 litres, and there’s 34 trillion litres in there?”

In a media release, the K’omoks First Nation came out in opposition to the well licence, describing it as an “insult to our nation and people.” The Nation stated they were in a treaty process, negotiating for groundwater allocations in their traditional territories, and were opposed to the volume and indefinite term of the well licence.

The Nation was also “extremely disappointed” with the province’s failure to meaningfully consult with them. Chief Nicole Rempel said: “The province needs to smarten up, negotiate in good faith and in accordance with [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples]”

Edwin Grieve, Director of Area C of the CVRD, said the licence was issued despite the district informing FLNRORD that the licence ran contrary to their official community plan and regional growth strategy.

MacKenzie said he now plans to apply for a different exception to his current zoning that would allow him to bottle the water on his land. “Not only is it a brand new application, we’re going in with the lawyers, and the [provincial] ombudsman, they’re all behind us.”

Dueling experts

In a document provided by MacKenzie, which he intends to submit to the CVRD for the zoning, a passage attributed to a hydrogeologist retained by Mackenzie read: “The proposed groundwater withdrawal is not a significant stress on the aquifer; no neighbouring wells will be significantly impacted by the proposed groundwater use.”

In contrast, the report by a consultant hydrogeologist commissioned by Bruce Gibbons to critique FLNRORD’s study of the well application was critical on several points. Chiefly, the report cast doubt on FLNRORD’s conclusion that the aquifer to be drilled is “not likely hydraulically connected to surface water,” citing the ministry’s lack of accounting for factors associated with connections between ground and surface water. The report also critically highlighted FLNRORD’s reliance on data from a monitoring well 12km away from the water bottling site, and 18-year-old data.

In the Merville case, FLNRORD has acted within their directive in granting the well license, as prescribed by the WSA. A worker following orders, FLNRORD has no mandate to inform the public of groundwater well applications. To qualify for an appeal of a well license, a complainant must be either an existing well holder or riparian owner (someone who owns waterfront property) whose water would be affected, or own land that would be physically disturbed.

Don’t throw the baby out with the groundwater

Stepping back from the play-by-play of raucous town hall meetings, quashed business plans, and dueling technical reports, the debate in Merville begs the question, how well is the WSA working?

Rosie Simms is a researcher at the University of Victoria’s POLIS project. She described some parts of the WSA as analogous to a promising but unfinished construction project. She said the potential for the WSA to provide “robust protections for fresh water” exists, but “until there’s further follow through, and actual work to get the most important parts of the act implemented and working on the ground, it’s still an incomplete process.”

Simms listed water sustainability plans, water objectives, and environmental flows provisions as tools for improving water governance available in the WSA, but currently underused. “Basically, there’s a whole lot of opportunity, it just needs to land,” she said. Despite that opportunity, there are still holes in the act. “There’s some major gaps. It’s silent on Aboriginal rights and title, which is a significant issue,” she said.

Emma Lui, a water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, said a major omission to the WSA is the recognition of water as a human right. Instead, the WSA relies on a gold-rush era rule called “first in time, first in right” for prioritizing water use. In the case of scarcity, first in time, first in right (mirrored by the phrase “first come, first served”) ignores the use of the water and rewards previously established water licences priority over subsequent licences.

First in time, first in right may have been a sensible principle for prospectors to follow a century ago, but Lui said it no longer makes sense. “When you have a system like first in time, first in right, you’re just not going to be able to prioritize water for communities,” she said.

But first in time, first in right, is not absolute. Simms said community water sustainability plans do have the power to change, cancel, or put conditions on water use for existing licences. During drought conditions, the province can also issue temporary orders to licence holders to reduce or stop flow to protect ecosystems and fish.

Lui said it’s pretty simple why such a dated principle made it into the new legislation. “I think the government was really not wanting to change the system in such a way that could threaten existing industries, like bottled water or fracking. But that’s really what needs to be done. We need to think about where water is being used and how that’s going to be impacting people and communities in the future.”

The Merville case demonstrates clearly that British Columbians are taking the governance of their water seriously. And rightly so, considering what’s at stake. For concerned citizens, water advocates, and commercial bottled water interests, the worst-case scenario is ultimately the same: running dry.

Gavin MacRae is the Watershed Sentinel’s new editorial assistant. He may be reached at editor@watershedsentinel.ca For other stories about environmental issues and their broader social implications go to the Watershed Sentinel website

Photo by George Le Masurier

 

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On Lazo, Comox shows no accountability

By Judy Morrison I attended the recent Town of Comox Open House where one of the featured topics was the Lazo Road shoreline. I have learned much since that date. I now know a lot more about shores and water and and their "systems." I have also learned more about...

Work stopped on Comox rip rap project

Second update: Work on the project resumed on Wednesday, June 29. This article was updated at 10 a.m. after receiving information from the Town of Comox regarding the work stoppage. Work stopped almost as soon as it began on the Cape Lazo shoreline stabilization...

Let’s make it socially unacceptable to feed deer

I’m done with deer. On any given day, small herds of deer eat their way through local neighborhoods. They wander onto busy streets and stop traffic, sometimes with fatal results. They damage property, threaten people and pets, pose health risks and attract dangerous...

On Oceans Day, tiny celebrations

Thanks to a Canadian initiative at the 1992 Earth Summit, the world celebrates Oceans Day on June 8. Unfortunately, our oceans haven’t done so well lately, putting a little damper on the party. We’ve overfished and under protected them, polluted them and ignored the...

Should UBC divest from fossil fuel companies?

Should the University of British Columbia buy shares in and take profits from fossil fuel companies or invest in funds and projects directly linked to controversial energy projects? The UBC Board of Governor’s considered that question after some faculty and staff...

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By George Le Masurier -- During the years following WWII, the logging industry boomed on the B.C. coast. Tug boats pulled massive log booms down the Strait of Georgia every day, hauling millions of board feet of prime timber from northern Vancouver Island to lumber...

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The Comox Valley has a wood stove problem

The Comox Valley has a wood stove problem

No wood stove would pass a basic vehicle emissions test, yet the Comox Valley allows them to burn day and night, for weeks and months, with almost no regulation, polluting our air and posing serious public health risks

 

This article was updated twice on Nov. 2

The Comox Valley has a dirty little secret, and we’ve only recently begun to acknowledge it. The prevalence of wood stoves has made our air quality one of the worst in British Columbia.

It’s estimated that more than a third of Comox Valley households have some type of wood-burning appliance that gets fired up in the fall and then idles all day long, week after week for the next five or six months. And they cause more pollution and risks to public health than any other heat source.

For many, wood burning is part of the northern culture, a lingering nostalgia for living self-sufficiently off the land or a childhood memory of the coziness of gathering around a wood stove. It’s a logger’s ritual of gathering, chopping and stacking wood.

But for others, wood smoke is a nightmare that causes respiratory diseases and increases the risk of heart attacks. It means spending money on air purifiers and medications, or losing money from taking sick time off work.

Comox Valley air quality was among the province’s top 10 worst for fine particulate matter (called PM2.5) for the last six years in a row, according to the BC Lung Association. Courtenay was the only one of 13 communities in the Georgia Strait Air Zone that failed to meet Canadian standards for PM2.5.

The Comox Valley regularly has three or four multi-day air quality advisories every winter, while Vancouver might have one and more often none.

“One only has to drive around older neighborhoods or low-lying areas in the winter, especially in the evening, to see that there is a lot of smoke coming from wood stoves,” says Jennell Ellis, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley.

Comox Valley municipalities have started to address the problem.

Cumberland has banned the installation of wood burning appliances — stove and fireplaces — in all new construction. The Comox Valley Regional District has offered incentives to upgrade old, uncertified wood stoves to cleaner, healthier options. Courtenay Council passed a regulation last winter about moving in this direction (low interest loans, not incentives), but it is not in place. 

The Town of Comox has taken no action on wood stoves yet. But Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott announced at an air quality information session this week that he expects that to “change in the next three months.”

“I’m hoping to have it brought up quite soon after the new council comes together,” Arnott told Decafnation after the meeting. “My feeling is that this council will want to act on it … So, while I don’t have consensus at this time I’m confident we can work something out.”

The situation is urgent for many people.

A 2017 multi-year heart attack study conducted in Kamloops, Prince George and Courtenay showed that short-term exposure to fine particulates increased heart attack risk in seniors by 6 percent, and by 19 percent when exposed to wood burning.

Ellis said the young and elderly are most at risk of health problems from wood smoke.

Studies have shown that smoke from a wood stove releases carcinogenic toxins equivalent to 1,000 cigarettes.

“Inhaling wood smoke is secondhand smoke,” Ellis said. She adds that PM2.5, the harmful fine particulate in wood smoke is easy to inhale, but difficult to exhale, which leads to deep respiratory problems.

North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine Enns has yet to mandate any restrictions on wood burning devices, but she has noted their accompanying health risks.

“It’s understanding the fact that there is no healthy level of air pollution. And exposure over time does impact chronic disease progression,” Enns has said.

FURTHER READING: How to read the Comox Valley air monitor readings

Perhaps it’s that pioneering tradition of burning wood for heat that clouds our judgement of its negative environmental impacts.

“There’s no wood stove that would meet a vehicle emissions test, yet we allow many of them to idle where we live, every day and next to schools,” Ellis told Decafnation via email.

“And if someone isn’t burning well, we end up investing taxpayer’s money into education and then enforcement if they still ignore best practices. No other heating appliance requires this kind of ongoing investment. No other heating appliance has so many proven health impacts,” she said.

What are the solutions

Ellis told Comox residents attending one of Breathe Clean Air’s roving information sessions at the Comox United Church Oct. 30, that to make a transition from wood stoves affordable requires a two-part strategy:

One, incentivize and regulate a transition out of wood stoves completely; and, two keep BC Hydro rates down.

But, the overall goal is to really transition people to cleaner heat sources, particularly in populated areas which will require education, incentives and regulation/enforcement. It is also important that people who are being impacted by neighbourhood smoke have bylaws available to deal with that, just as they do with undue amounts of noise or other disturbances. 

“The solution is definitely not to move people to newer wood stoves, especially in more densely populated areas,” she said. “A recent study from the UK showed that an eco-certified stove, operating at factory testing levels, puts out more fine particulates than 18 Modern Diesel Passenger cars.”

Ellis diagramed the rating of heating sources for her Comox audience.

Wood fireplaces are the worst emitters of PM2.5, plus they suck the heat of a house, making them the most inefficient heat sources. Pellet burning stoves are slightly better than wood burners. They emit 27 pounds of annual pollution. Oil furnaces emit a quarter-pound of pollution, and gas a sixteenth of a pound.

Electric powered heating devices are the best, emitting zero pollution annually, she said. And electric heat exchanger systems are the best, drawing a minimum amount of power.

Ellis advocates for a Valley-wide approach, with consistent regulations across jurisdictions. Right now, the Valley’s four municipal governments all have different bylaws governing wood stoves and open burning of yard waste.

Cumberland, Comox and Courtenay all ban backyard fires to burn leaves or other debris, but it is allowed in regional electoral areas A, B and C.

Protect yourself

Ellis said there are methods for Valley residents to protect themselves, including running HEPA-rated air purifiers inside, and turning off the ‘fresh’ air intakes in homes and vehicles during heavy smoke periods, usually early winter evenings when mini-atmospheric inversions coincide with people stoking up their stoves.  Wearing N95 or N99 rated masks may also help when outside, but only if the mask fits very well.

People can also install localized air quality monitors available from PurpleAir.

The Breathe Clean Air event at Comox United Church in Comox was sponsored by SAGE: Sustainability Action Group for the Environment.

 

BC ministry attempts to justify Sackville water license

BC ministry attempts to justify Sackville water license

Ministry officials explain and justify their Sackville Road groundwater extraction decision, saying no negative effects will result. But Merville residents question the ministry’s data and remain suspicious about negative effects on their wells

 

EDITOR’s NOTE: This story was updated at 11 a.m. July 17

Provincial government officials who reviewed and approved a groundwater extraction license for a proposed Sackville Road water bottling operation explained their decision-making process to a packed house at the Merville Community Hall last night (July 16).

Representatives of the Nanaimo Branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) used a PowerPoint presentation to convince the crowd of several hundred people that the extraction of up to 10,000 litres per day from their aquifer won’t result in any negative effects.

The crowd wasn’t buying it.

The audience listened to the presentations with few interruptions and applauded politely for each speaker.

But when the question and answer period began, the mood turned raucous, with catcalls and loud and long cheering for citizens who pressed the ministry officials to defend what was called a “ridiculous” decision.

The ministry issued a groundwater license to Christopher Scott Mackenzie and Regula Heynck, who hope to create a commercial business by selling up to 3.65 million litres of water annually.

The Comox Valley Regional District has not approved the couple’s rezoning application, which is necessary to allow such an operation on the property.

Citizens questioned whether the ministry actually has reliable data about aquifer #408, because the studies it has relied on are 18 years old, and since then accelerated population growth and climate change have altered the facts.

Other citizens called most of the presentation irrelevant because it referred to the effects of the Sackville groundwater extraction on nearby drilled wells. But according to residents, 90 percent of the wells in the area are not drilled, but shallow.

Area C CVRD Director Edwin Grieve, MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard and the Sackville applicants attended the presentation.

How the decision was made

Pat Lapcevic, water protection section head for the ministry’s west coast region, talked through the science behind the extraction approval.

She showed charts of the ministry’s simulations that estimate that current groundwater use in the Merville aquifer is less than 20 percent of its annual recharge, which has been stable over the last 15 years based on data from an observation well located 12 km from the Sackville site.

The aquifer is recharged — a fresh input of water — by precipitation falling on the area and by snowmelt from the Beaufort Mountains.

She said the annual recharge is 34 million metres-cubed, or 34 trillion litres. The current use is estimated at six million metres-cubed, or 18 percent.

Lapcevic said pumping out 10,000 litres per day is “expected” to drawdown water levels in the aquifer by less than three centimetres. It represents less than one percent of the annual recharge.

Daryl Slater, a resource manager in FLNRORD’s Nanaimo office, reminded the audience that his ministry does not make policy, it only implements and monitors policy made by the Ministry of Environment and the BC Legislature.

Ticking off the considerations in reviewing a groundwater license application, Slater said the ministry could find no reason to deny it. They found no negative effects on anyone’s rights or to the wells of nearby users.

Slater said his office consulted with Island Health, local governments, the Ministry of Highways, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and archeology experts.

He said they also consulted with K’omoks First Nations, but would not reveal the content of those consultations, which he called confidential.

But K’omoks First Nations has publicly opposed the water bottling operation and the issuing of a water license, and told the FLNRORD ministry so in 2017 during the consultation process.

In a strong letter to the CVRD, KFN Chief Nicole Rempel explained their opposition.

Citizens wondered what was the point of ministry consultations if both the Comox Valley Regional District and K’omoks First Nation opposed granting a water license, and the ministry approved it anyway.

Citizens contradict FLNRORD

Bunky Hall, whose shallow well is the closest to the Sackville site, challenged ministry “estimations” of the effect of drilled wells on shallow wells.

He said when the Portuguese Creek Restoration Society drilled a well to keep the stream from going dry during the summer, his 16-foot deep shallow well went dry two days later.

When a water delivery service brought him water, they asked what was going on because they had never delivered water to that area before and all of a sudden they were getting multiple requests.

Ministry officials dismissed his experience saying there probably wasn’t any connection between the two events.

Lapcevic responded that shallow wells were sensitive to climate change and maybe it wasn’t the drilled, pumping well that caused his well to go dry.

“Most of what the ministry people presented tonight is irrelevant,” Hall told Decafnation after the meeting. “About 90 percent of the wells in the vicinity (of Sackville Road) are shallow wells. They only talked about the effects on drilled wells.”

The Technical Report summarty states that “the well (WTN 111987) is on the applicant’s property and is flowing artesian at roughly 15 gpm so a pump is not required at this time.” 

Neither Slater or Lapcevic explained that if a pump is unnecessary how the aquifer could be confined and not affect shallow wells.

Bruce Gibbons, a member of the Merville Water Guardians and lives on ALR land about 300 metres from the Sackville Road site, said the ministry presented more detailed information than was contained in their original Technical Report.

“It appears they did significant work after the decision was made and after the opposition to their decision arose,” he told Decafnation.

Gibbons was privy to the original Technical Report because he filed an appeal to the FLNRORD decision. The ministry has not revealed the report to anyone else.

Even MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard was unable to get a copy of the original report.

And the ministry has still not responded to a Freedom of Information request for the report filed in March by Merville Organics farmer Arzeena Hamir.

Slater told the audience he didn’t know why the FOI request hadn’t been fulfilled. He said it’s “unfortunate” it takes so long.

Another speaker challenged the ministry’s assumptions about the stability of the aquifer.

She said the climate change is causing the Comox Glacier and other nearby glaciers to melt, which could be artificially inflating the aquifer’s recharge rate and its stability.

Lapcevic said the ministry is not seeing changes so far due to climate change, but the Sackville Road decision was based on the best data at the time.

Wayne Bradley recognized the FLNRORD ministry was bound by legislation in its decision-making process, so he called on MLA Leonard to champion a political movement to amend the Water Sustainability Act.

“We need to recognize that water is a common property,” he said. “Private profit on a sale of community property is not a beneficial use.”

Leonard left the meeting without responding to Bradley, but made a statement earlier that residents “should feel assured that I have posed these questions also.”

She said the Water Sustainability Act is new, and it’s moving water rights issues in the right direction.

“It takes time,” she said. “Be active, make your concerns known.”

FURTHER READING: Water bottling project raises aquifer concerns; Ministry stalls FOI request on Merville water bottling; “Unbelievable accusations” move water bottling to public hearing