Sponging up the rain, taxing impervious surfaces — what other communities are doing

Sponging up the rain, taxing impervious surfaces — what other communities are doing

By George Le Masurier

This is the sixth in a series of articles about how urban stormwater runoff has negatively impacted Comox Valley waterways, what local governments are doing to address the issues and what other communities have done.

 

Urban development in the Comox Valley has fundamentally altered the natural water balance. As impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots and buildings replaced vegetated land, the opportunity for rain water to soak into the ground or return to the atmosphere by evapotranspiration diminished.

To prevent flooding, Valley municipalities have relied on expensive engineered infrastructure, such as curb, getters and stormwater pipes, to divert rainwater into area creeks and streams, and sometimes directly into the K’omoks Estuary.

Along the way, that rain water has picked up oil, grease and engine coolants, copper from vehicle brakes, zinc from vehicle tires, animal feces and a variety of other contaminants that in some cases have killed all aquatic life in our waters and threatened public health.

Polluted stormwater regularly causes the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to ban shellfish harvesting in Baynes Sound (as it did in November), and for the Capital Regional District to declare waters at certain Victoria-area beaches a possible health risk (as it did on Dec. 29).

Municipalities around the world have moved toward systems that rely less on “grey” infrastructure and more on “green “infrastructure that attempts to mimic nature.

It also costs less. Curb, gutters and pipes create long-term, unfunded liabilities for taxpayers to repair and replace. The Comox Valley alone has hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded infrastructure liabilities.

So, every community is looking for innovative stormwater solutions. Here are some of them.

Victoria

The City of Victoria introduced a stormwater utility in 2016 to accomplish two goals: one, to fund its ongoing expense of replacing and repairing stormwater pipes; and, two, to encourage property owners to manage their own rainwater where it falls.

Before 2016, Victoria included stormwater fees in property taxes and based the charge on a property’s assessed value. Now, property owners pay fees based on the amount of rainwater estimated to run off their property.

In other words, the more impervious surfaces that cover a property and the fewer source control measures implemented — rain gardens, pervious pavers, etc. — the more a homeowner will pay.

“The stormwater utility is a funding model similar to how we fund water and sanitary services,” Brianne Czypyha, the city’s stormwater management specialist, told Decafnation. “The city uses the stormwater utility because it’s a more equitable user-pay system that bases the fees on the impact a property has on the system.”

Czypyha said grey infrastructure will always be an integral part of managing runoff in the city, but integrating green infrastructure will help build capacity of the system and improve the quality of stormwater runoff discharged into the environment. Using source controls is voluntary, for now, but not using them will cost property owners more.

“While the direction we have chosen is to use incentives to encourage the use of green infrastructure, particularly for retrofitting existing buildings,” Czypyha said. “I definitely see value in requiring new developments to meet more stringent rainwater management requirements.”

Richmond, BC, also has a stormwater utility, and it’s a common practice throughout Washington, Oregon and California.


“We’re aware of the problem, so why would we wait for someone else to tell us to fix it?”


 

Capital Regional District

The municipalities of Saanich, Victoria and Oak Bay have signed on to a multi-jurisdictional, multi-stakeholder 100-year watershed management plan for Bowker Creek. The plan identifies places to daylight and naturalize the creek.

“The plan is to move Bowker Creek back to a more natural stream, as opportunities arise,” Glenn Harris told Decafnation. Harris is the CRD’s senior manager for environmental protection and the Bowker Creek Initiative spokesperson.

Bird life and bio-diversity around the creek is already coming back, Harris said, especially around Oak Bay High School where a $750,000 grant restored and naturalized the creek, increased native plantings and created a creek-focused curriculum at the school.

“It provides an opportunity to restore islands of nature within the urban environment,” he said.

 

Elsewhere in Canada

Kitchener, Ontario has taken a direct action approach to stormwater management. For more than a year, the city has required all new development to capture the first 12.5 millimetres of rain — about a half-inch — every time it rains.

The rule applies to subdivisions, commercial buildings and even city-owned roads. It means that except for major storm events, all rain water must be managed onsite, and no water would reach stormwater pipes or ponds.

Kitchener took the action ahead of anticipated new provincial stormwater regulations based on its own climate change study that predicted a 20 percent increase in rainfall.

“We’re aware of the problem, so why would we wait for someone else to tell us to fix it?,” the city’s stormwater manager Nick Gollan told a Kitchener newspaper. “We should be putting strategies in place to adapt to the changes that are taking place.”

The City of Langley has created a Department of Green Infrastructure Services. It has standardized rain gardens instead of traditional curbs and gutters on all non-arterial roads.

Since 2009, the City of Toronto has required green roofs on all commercial, institutional and residential developments with a minimum floor area of 2,000 square metres (appx. 21,500 square feet), this includes any additions to buildings that increase the floor area to the minium.

 

Outside of Canada

Portland, Oregon has been the acknowledged leader of stormwater management regulations for more than two decades. It started in 1993 with a downspout disconnection program.

But since 1999, Portland’s Sustainable Stormwater Management Plan has required source control on any new redeveloped properties that add more than 500 square feet of impervious surface. That means property owners must manage and treat all the runoff from impervious surfaces with green infrastructure — rain gardens, green roofs, soaker trenches, drywell, pervious pavers, etc. — and in some cases may be required to install underground treatment devices to remove pollutants.

Now, other cities are catching up.

The City of Philadelphia is in the seventh year of a 25-year project to “detain it (rainwater), not convey it.” The city has committed $2.4 billion to recreate in the urban streetscape the kinds of pervious places where, instead of running into surrounding waterways, rainfall and the contaminants it carries can once again soak into and be cleaned by the earth.

Berlin, Germany adopted a Sponge City Strategy in 2017 to mitigate both heat and flooding problems expected to intensify with climate change. The goal is to increase the amount of surfaces within the city that allow water to soak into the ground and release it gradually, rather than a sudden rush into waterways, and more urban vegetation that cools the air through evaporation.

The manager of Berlin’s project says, “The key is to avoid sealing up too much of the ground surface with concrete or tarmac. Wherever possible, we want water-permeable surfaces.”

Berlin’s strategy borrows the term “sponge city” from a 2013 Chinese initiative that proclaimed urban areas should act like sponges, based on the work of landscape architect Kongjian Yu.

Yu’s motto for rainwater management is: retain, adapt, slow down and reuse. Others have since modified that slogan as: sink it, slow it, reuse it and move it.

 

Educational opportunities

The best educators have long-ago incorporated curriculum about the environment and, more recently, about climate change.

More than 30 years ago, Barry Thornton, the former principal of Brooklyn Elementary School in Comox, was a pioneer in teaching young students about conservation and the environment in general. Thornton was a advocate for the restoration of Brooklyn Creek and initiated several fish habitat improvement projects near the school.

B.C. Adventure photo

He was also a co-founder of the schools Salmonids in the Classroom program that acquainted children with the life cycle of salmon and other aquatic life.

Today, students from elementary schools to high schools all over the globe are learning about the hydrological cycle, water balance and the need for better solutions to stormwater management. A quick search of the Internet brings up stormwater education programs from Kentucky to Rhode Island to Mississauga, Ontario.

The City of Mississauga has a stormwater outreach team that does presentations in K-12 classrooms that covers topics such as municipal stormwater management, water conservation, low-impact development and water quality and environmental health.

Students at Arcata High School in Humboldt County, Calif., recently started a project to create rain gardens around campus parking lots after an Environmental Science class found a high level of pollutants in the nearby Jolly Giant Creek.

In Kingston, Ontario, the city’s Fish and Frogs Forever program talks with local students about how polluted stormwater impacts local aquatic ecosystems and what they can do to reverse the negative effects.

 

What is the future?

Environmentalists and conservationists want improved stormwater regulations to happen quickly. But Brianne Cyzypyha, stormwater specialist at the City of Victoria, says that change in stormwater management is a multi-year, complex process, requiring involvement from many internal departments, and also feedback from experts and the public.

“In terms of the way forward, I see most municipalities as similar to a large ship changing course. It can be a bit of a slow process making changes to the old ways of doing business,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

RELATED ARTICLES OF INTEREST

What to know more about the Sponge City concept?

This article describes modern stormwater management tools: sink it, slow it, reuse it and move it.

This article describes landscape architect Kongjian Yu who coined the term “sponge cities.”

This link takes you to Philadelphia’s guide for retrofitting properties to the city’s new stormwater regulations.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

The snow is falling … but it won’t last

By George Le Masurier now starting falling in the Comox Valley today, and forecasters expect between 5 cm to 20 cm to fall throughout the day. But enjoy the snow while it's here. It will start raining overnight, and...

CIC Director Greg Baute hopes to redefine cannabis breeding

Greg Baute, the director of breeding and genetics at the pioneering Cannabis Innovation Centre in Comox, is a scientist. But to fully understand Baute, you need to know that there’s another, equally powerful side to his scientific mind.

Stormwater systems shift slowly toward green infrastructure

Stormwater systems shift slowly toward green infrastructure

Director of Engineering Services Ryan O’Grady at Courtenay City Hall   |  Photo by George Le Masurier

By George Le Masurier

This is the fourth in a series exploring the adverse effects on our waterways from how municipalities have traditionally managed stormwater runoff, and the slow shift to mimic natural through green infrastructure. This week we look at how Comox Valley municipalities are addressing the issues. Next week: what other communities are doing.

 

Stormwater management plans in the Comox Valley have historically treated rainwater as waste, something to be collected and disposed of quickly, usually into previously clean streams or directly into the ocean.

Our local governments have commonly relied on hard engineering solutions that employ expensive infrastructure, such as storm drains, catch basins, pipes and ponds.

That approach has removed and altered the source of groundwater that used to recharge our aquifers. And it has left us with polluted streams incapable of supporting aquatic life, shellfish harvesting bans, eroded private and public property, the loss of attractive natural environments and a long-term financial burden we cannot afford.

Shellfish bans to all of the K’omoks Estuary

Comox Valley governments already have more than roughly $400 million in unfunded infrastructure liabilities (even more if the calculation was based on replacement cost), and stormwater systems account for a significant portion of that staggering total. The Town of Comox alone had $160 million in 2012.

And each new regional housing development ultimately adds more to the total because builders pay development cost charges that cover only the costs of installing infrastructure. They pay nothing for ongoing repairs, maintenance and replacment. Taxpayers are saddled with that burden, forever.

Clearly, a new approach is needed.

Forward-thinking municipalities have shifted toward source control, managing rain where it falls through infiltration, evapotranspiration and rainwater harvesting, techniques known as green infrastructure. This improves water quality, reduces flooding and erosion and costs taxpayers less.

To fund this fundamental transformation in stormwater systems, some municipalities have introduced new fees based on the percentage of impervious surfaces on a property, along with corresponding financial incentives to install green infrastructure.

So, given the benefits and cost savings of going green, are Comox Valley municipalities and other local governments rushing to implement green infrastructure? Not exactly.

A 2017 study conducted by the Canadian Freshwater Alliance and Green Communities Canada, which included data from the Comox Valley, found that most municipalities were moving slowly.

“Most communities surveyed are not far advanced in adapting urban landscapes to manage rain where it falls,” according to a Green Communities summary of the study. “Communities appear to be making moderate commitments … in community plans.”

So, what exactly are Comox Valley municipalities doing?

City of Courtenay

Ryan O’Grady, the city’s director of engineering services, will lead the development of an Integrated Stormwater Management Plan (ISMP) in 2019. The plan will encompass strategies for flood mitigation in the downtown core, how to replace traditional engineered infrastructure with green solutions and will, he says, look through a broad lens at regional solutions.

“The ISMP will have an educational component, too, about stormwater systems,” O’Grady told Decafnation. “These will be challenging conversations, but there is a collective desire to change.”

Water and sewer issues have gotten most of every municipalities’ attention up until now, he said. Stormwater is one of the last service areas to focus on.

Rain gardens on Courtenay’s new ‘complete’ Fifth Street

“Our city has prioritized stormwater lower in the past to deal with drinking water,” O’Grady said. “All staff are looking forward to working on stormwater.”

The city has also shifted its approach to management of assets from reactive to proactive, a move he said came from Chief Administrative Officer David Allen (see separate story).

For example, the city is currently doing a culvert assessment where streams pass under roadways to see they are working properly. Good working culverts are important for fish passage. And the recently renovated upper portion of Fifth Street was designed with rain gardens to test how well they work and the ongoing cost to maintain them.

“We’re learning how to integrate green infrastructure and low-impact development going forward,” he said.

O’Grady intends for the stormwater plan to take a regional view, including discussions about Brooklyn Creek, which originates in Courtenay, flows through regional Area B and empties into Comox Bay.

“There’s a collective desire to collaborate … it would be great to work together,” he said.

The stormwater management plan project is part of a national pilot project to improve Courtenay’s resilience to climate change. The city is one of 72 across Canada chosen to participate.

O’Grady told Decafnation he has already begun contacting representatives from the development community, regional technical staff, stakeholders, elected officials, regulatory agencies, creek and stream stewardship groups and the K’omoks First Nations. The planning will get underway in early 2019.

The city has set aside $110,000 to develop the plan, and will get additional funding assistance from the Municipal Natural Asset Initiative (MNAI), a collective that supports municipalities to better understand, value and manage its natural assets onan equivalent basis with its other infrastructure.

“I look forward to facilitating that conversation with the bigger group,” he said.

Town of Comox

Comox does not have a town-wide stormwater management plan, but has created detailed plans for specific developments, such as the North East neighbourhood..

On paper, the North East neighbourhood stormwater management plan looks to be the most progressive for a subdivision in the Comox Valley.

However, the green infrastructure recommended in a plan commissioned by the area’s land owners and developers from McElhanney Consulting Services Ltd., has not been adopted by the town into bylaws that fund and manage their long-term operation.

So, it is unknown at this point whether these green infrastructure policies will actually be implemented, or enforced.

Town of Comox Municipal Engineer Shelley Ashfield refused to meet with Decafnation to discuss the town’s plans. Instead she answered some email questions and referred us to links on the town’s website.

Vegetated property cleared for condos near the Comox Golf Club. Town says no source control on rainwater will apply

If fully enacted, the McElhanney report recommends a variety of source control measures for eventual North East homeowners. These include rainwater harvesting, disconnecting downspouts from stormwater pipes, rock pits (infiltration pits), green roofs, amended soil for rain gardens and permeable pavement for driveways.

The report also recommends the town require narrow streets for less impervious surface, town-owned rain gardens in roundabouts and boulevards, and infiltration galleries.

McElhanney expressed concern in its report about the possibility that homeowners and the town would not maintain or protect the green infrastructure features, which could result in their failure and cause flooding and other problems.

“Given the potential difficulties in enforcing the ongoing maintenance and upkeep … it has been decided that the water balance benefit derived from the use of these features ought to be significantly discounted, to ensure the long-term performance of the overall stormwater management system,” the report says.

To hedge against that possibility, the report suggests, “It may be prudent to approach the shift to greater reliance on Low Impact Development tentatively, by designing a few subdivisions on the basis of redundant capacity, and then monitoring for compliance with clearly worded and well-publicized operation and maintenance regulations.”

It appears the neighbourhood will get traditional stormwater conveyance in addition to requirements for green infrastructure

The engineers are recommending the creation of series of dry detention ponds connected by infiltration trenches that all ultimately flow into the Queens Ditch, which is a low-sloped ditch leading to the Strait of Georgia at the Point Holmes boat ramp.

And they recommend copious informational signs reminding homeowners of their responsibilities for managing rainwater on their property and not to damage town-owned green infrastructure.

Ashfield said the town is currently updating its Subdivision and Development Services Bylaw and she hopes to have it finalized by next spring. But she would not say whether all or some of the North East Comox stormwater recommendations would be included in the town-wide bylaw.

Asked via email whether the town asked for green infrastructure features in the redevelopment of the Comox mall, or in the development of new multi-family projects at the Comox Golf Course or on Anderton Road, Ashfield said it did not.

“These sites are per the town’s current Official Community Plan and as such are currently modeled with the town’s 2013 storm study,” Ashfield wrote.

She also said bioswales or other infiltration features were considered for the recent Robb Road renovation, but were rejected because of the installation and maintenance cost premium and soil condition.

Ashfield said the town would be an active participant in the Courtenay Integrated Stormwater Management Plan process.

“Anything upstream of the town drains into Brooklyn Creek and so is very important that all jurisdictions within any watershed work together …” she said.

Village of Cumberland

The majority of Cumberland’s rainwater is collected and is either combined with the sanitary sewer system or, where it is separated, directed to one of three wetland areas around the village.

Manager of Operations Rob Crisfield said the village does have some storm drainage systems where rainwater is collected into a bioswale and soaks away into the ground.

One of several rain gardens in the boulevards entering the Village of Cumberland

“This method is used in the new ditches that were established on Cumberland and Bedan roads as part of a (renovation) project in 2016-2017,” he told Decafnation. “Of course, this doesn’t always work, depending on soil conditions.”

The village also requires ground recharge infiltration methods in appropriate subdivisions to allow water to soak back into the ground without runoff. And it is looking at a man-made pond in the Carlisle Lane development as a retention pond.

“We are also looking at including the potential of rain gardens in our downtown enhancement plan when it is updated in the near future,” he said.

Comox Valley Regional District

Marc Rutten, the general manager of the regional district’s engineering services branch, says the CVRD has no stormwater infrastructure to manage.

But the regional district is responsible for land use planning in the rural areas and uses the development permit too to reduce natural hazards (steep slopes) and protect the natural environment (streams). The CVRD has mapped the entire district to identify steep ravines and slopes, and streams, with the goal of ensuring no adverse effects from water flows.

The CVRD also dictates that water flows before and after a property is developed remain equal, so that streams neither flood nor run dry. But the CVRD shifts responsibility to the landower to employ green infrastructure — minimizing impervious surfaces, ponds, rock pits, pervious pavers, etc. — to achieve that goal.

How a street-side rain garden functions

However, stormwater runoff from Courtenay and Comox does affect the CVRD wastewater treatment plant on Brent Road.

Inflow volumes at the treatment plant increase by 3.5 times during the rainy winter months, an indication that stormwater is leaking into the sanitary sewer system.

Rutten said current municipal bylaws don’t allow stormwater to be tied into sewer lines, but there are legacy connections, which were common 70 years ago. Courtenay and Comox have separated sewer and stormwater lines over the last 40 years.

But because sewer and stormwater pipes are usually buried side-by-side, stormwater can leak into a gravity sewage system, such as the Courtenay-Comox sewer lines.

A gravity sewer systems runs under atmospheric pressure and the pipes are generally 25 percent to 75 percent full and flowing downhill. There is generally not enough pressure inside the system to force sewage out of the pipe, but groundwater enters because when groundwater levels rise, static pressure is created to force the water into the sewer pipe through worn out gaskets in pipe section joints.

Darry Montieth, the CVRD’s manager of liquid waste planning, said the Ministry of Highways has some subdivision approval authority in rural areas, and maintains all rural ditches.

But in the developments where the CVRD does have approval authority, Montieth says the district stresses 30 metre riparian setbacks and steep slope guidelines and can require a stormwater drainage plan through the development permit process.

The future

“Stormwater runoff is one of the largest water pollution issues facing the U.S. today,” says Larry Levine, a senior attorney with the National Resource Defense Council, an international environmental advocacy group.

And the challenge for Canadian municipalities is to wholeheartedly embrace green infrastructure as the only affordable and effective long-term solution to how rainwater is managed.

Next: how other communities on Vancouver Island and around the world are meeting this challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

READ MORE

North East Comox Stormwater Management Plan

Green Communities Canada

Canadian Fresh Water Alliance

 

 

A SHORT 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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Stormwater systems shift slowly toward green infrastructure

Stormwater management plans in the Comox Valley have historically treated rainwater as waste, something to be collected and disposed of quickly, usually into previously clean streams or directly into the ocean. Clearly a new approach is needed.

CVRD trades water for hatchery, for treatment plant land

BY GEORGE LE MASURIER The Comox Valley Regional District issued this press release today.he Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) and the Courtenay and District Fish & Game Protective Association (Fish & Game Association) have reached an...

Golf Creek: A case study in stormwater planning gone wrong

The second in a series about stormwater begins the Tale of Three Creeks: Golf, Brooklyn and Morrison. Golf Creek is dead, Brooklyn Creek is threatened and Morrison Creek is thriving, with an effort to protect its pristine and intact headwaters

Morrison Creek: a spring-fed stream without stormwater outlets sustains aquatic life

Morrison Creek: a spring-fed stream without stormwater outlets sustains aquatic life

Janet Gemmell, president of the Morrison Creek Stream Keepers, along the creek near Puntledge Park — George Le Masurier photo

By George Le Masurier

This is the fourth in a series about how traditional municipal systems to handle urban stormwater runoff has affected Comox Valley streams, and the trend toward more natural solutions. The series examines and compares stormwater effects on three streams: Golf Creek, Brooklyn Creek and Morrison Creek.

Not all of the water from glacier-fed Comox Lake drains out through the Puntledge River. Huge volumes of cold clear water from the bottom of the lake infiltrate deep into the ground and begin seeping downhill on a multi-year journey toward the ocean.

But just east of Bevan Road, at the foot of a steep slope dropping about 100 feet, some of this water resurfaces in the form of dozens of tiny springs wiggling themselves free of their underground routes. These waters pool up into wetlands and ponds and grow into little tributaries that eventually all come together in one main channel.

We call that channel, Morrison Creek.

Morrison Creek flows from these headwaters at the outer edge of Cumberland, down through rural Area C of the Comox Valley Regional District, running somewhat parallel to Lake Trail Road. Then it travels through the City of Courtenay and joins the Puntledge River at Puntledge Park.

Like Brooklyn Creek, the Morrison travels through three separate municipal jurisdictions. But unlike Brooklyn — and most certainly unlike the polluted and channelized Golf Creek — the Morrison is alive with aquatic life in its cool, clean water.

The creek supports four of the five species of salmon all the way up to its headwaters. There are ample trout throughout the system, and large freshwater mussels flourish here. It is also home to a strange creature called the Morrison Creek lamprey, a unique variation of the common Western Brook Lamprey found on the coast.

And the Morrison’s waters run plentiful and steady all year around.

So why is Morrison Creek so much healthier than Brooklyn or Golf creeks?

The simple answer is that the Morrison’s headwaters are pristine and intact, and where it travels through developed areas, the creek remains mostly natural with adequate riparian cover.

But there’s also another reason.

More than 48 stormwater outlets empty into Brooklyn and Golf creeks — about two dozen each. And from those outlets flow oils, pesticides, animal and human feces and a variety of heavy metals and chemicals, many of which are toxic to wildlife. Golf creek gets an excessive amount of contaminants after a heavy rain because it drains the downtown commercial area of Comox.

By contrast, there are only two stormwater outlets into Morrison Creek, both near its termination in Puntledge Park and none come from a commercial area.

Saving the headwaters

The key to Morrison Creek’s success as a healthy waterway is the natural state of its vast headwaters. But that’s also the greatest threat to its long-term survival.

The headwaters area was originally logged in the 1920s and again in the 1960s. If the new growth was logged again, it would inflict cumulative negative impacts on the creek and wildlife habitat.

When the Comox Valley Lands Trust (CVLT) completed a science-based conservation plan several years ago, the Morrison headwaters emerged as a top priority to acquire and conserve. Not only does the nearly 600-acre area support significant biodiversity, it also plays a critical role in sustaining water quality in the rest of the Morrison watershed.

The headwaters are bordered by the Inland Highway to its west, north by Lake Trail Road and west by Bevan Road. The land is mostly owned by Hancock Timber Resource Group, a logging company known as Comox Timber, with few exceptions:

There are homes on two small rural lots and two undeveloped properties, and a small piece of wetland purchased by the province during construction of the Inland Highway that was later protected at the Linton Conservation Area.


“We have a good creek. We’d like to keep it that way.”


There is also a 55-acre parcel privately owned since the 1960s by the late Beecher Linton. His family has agreed to sell the land to the CVLT and has given the nonprofit ample time to raise the $870,000 purchase price.

“The Linton heirs appreciate the natural value of the land and Beecher’s history on it,” Jan Gemmell, president of the Morrison Creek Stream Keepers, told Decafnation.

Although the CVLT and the stream keepers hope to ultimately preserve the entire Morrison watershed, the Linton property is a good start. It contains critical salmon habitat, many of the main creek’s tributaries and wetlands important to diverse wildlife.

“As much as the creek has been muddled around with in its lower reaches, the creek has a really good, continuous source of cool, highly-oxygenated spring water that doesn’t dry up in the summer,” Gemmell said.

The best way to preserve Morrison Creek, she said, is to let the headwaters land regrow.

Tim Ennis, executive director of the CVLT, said the Linton property resides in the Comox Valley Regional District, which contributed 35 percent of the purchase price, and will eventually manage it as a nature park.

“The remainder of the Morrison headwaters is in the Village of Cumberland,” Ennis said. “It will be harder to acquire because the village doesn’t have the resources to help as much as the regional district did.”

Threats from multiple jurisdictions

While logging or development of the Morrison Creek headwaters would be devastating, there are also other threats.

The creek flows through Roy Morrison Park, a 20-acre parcel managed by the City of Courtenay, but owned by the Nature Trust of BC with a covenant to ensure its long-term natural state. But much of what people think of as Morrison Park is actually school board property.

Recent attempts by the school board to close Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary have raised concerns about the possibility the district would someday sell the lands.

In the Arden Road area, a City of Courtenay Local Area Plan specifies 30 metre setbacks from the stream, where no development can occur. However some relaxation of this standard has occurred, Gemmell said.

Gemmell said there are also concerns about the rural and sparsely populated areas west of Powerhouse Road, which lies in Area C of the regional district.

If smaller lot development was allowed in this area, with accompanying paved roads, gutters and storm drains, it would negatively impact the creek.

“Even larger country estate lots, developments where a single large home is built, but the whole lot is cleared, drained and leveled, remove natural sponge areas and affect creek flows,” Gemmell said. “We have a good creek. We’d like to keep it that way.”

Alana Mullaly, the CVRD’s senior manager of planning and protective services, said the lands in and around Morrison Creek are designated “settlement expansion areas” in the Regional Growth Strategy. Both the RGS and the zoning within the settlement expansion areas establish a minimum subdivision parcel size of four hectares (approximately 10 acres), she said.

“Settlement expansion areas are intended as reserve areas for future growth needs of the municipal areas,” Mullaly told Decafnation. “Higher intensity development in these areas would only be permitted if and when they are incorporated into a municipal area, publicly serviced (sewer and water) and a local area plan with companion zoning is prepared.”

However, Morrison Creek is also protected under the Riparian Areas Regulation.

“We implement that provincial regulation using the development permit tool,” Mullaly said. “We are also looking at how to better protect species at risk, such as the Morrison Creek Western Lamprey, through the development permit tool (e.g. implementing the Species at Risk Action plans).”

Morrison supports biodiversity

Beavers make dams on many of the spring-fed tributaries of Morrison Creek in its headwaters. These dams create natural retention ponds that allow water to soak back into the ground and also prevent overflows after heavy rains or snowmelt.

That’s what man-made retention ponds attempt to do. They prevent rushes of water into the creek that could cause erosion and disturb fish spawning grounds.


More than 48 stormwater outlets empty into Brooklyn and Golf creeks. By contrast, there are only two stormwater outlets into Morrison Creek


And the steady flow makes biodiversity in the creek possible. Besides salmon, trout, mussels and lampreys, there are also Red-legged frogs, Great Blue herons and Pacific Sideband snails living in the riparian areas of the creek. Of course, beavers, deer, bears and other wildlife live in the headwaters.

Perhaps the most unusual species found in the stream is the Morrison Creek lamprey, a unique variation of the common Western Brook Lamprey found in streams along the coast. It is only found in Morrison Creek.

The first five years of the lamprey’s life are spent immersed in the silty bottom of the creek or its ponds. When it emerges, the Morrison lamprey metamorphoses into both parasitic and non-parasitic forms.

Stream keepers do their part

To keep any stream healthy requires a dedicated and active group of volunteers. The Comox Valley is fortunate to have a large number of stream keeper groups, all with a high level of expertise, who monitor local creeks and advocate for their protection.

The Morrison Creek Stream Keepers was founded in 1996. It has seven board members and about 20 to 25 active volunteers, and has done numerous in-stream improvement projects. They have removed a dilapidated wooden fish ladder and replaced it with a boulder-based riffle, which creates fish habitat. Major fish passage work has been done at Comox Logging Road, and the volunteers have created a pond in Puntledge Park and done annual smolt counts and collecting data on spawning fish.

The Morrison stream keepers contract out the expert design and technical work to Current Environmental, of Courtenay. Funds for the project have come from other environmental nonprofits. The City of Courtenay has not provided matching grants in the past, as Comox has done for the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society.

What’s next

The Comox Valley Lands Trust has almost raised enough funds to complete the purchase of the Linton property, but not nearly enough to preserve the entire Morrison Creek headwaters. Nor have negotiations begun with Comox Timber for the remaining 500 or so acres.

But the CVLT is working with BC Lands Trust Alliance to advocate for taking the Gulf Island Natural Areas Tax Exempt Program province wide. The Gulf Island’s program is a pilot project that eliminates property tax on any portion of the property where a covenant is placed on its natural assets.

For now, Morrison Creek is thriving, and that status could be assured with the protection of its headwaters; a wilderness oasis unaffected by human disturbances about the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

And there’s something else important about Morrison Creek that doesn’t often get mentioned. The origins of the creek, natural springs created by groundwater seepage from Comox Lake and Maple Lake, remind us of the interconnectivity of the greater Comox Valley Watershed, and how it all impacts not just creeks and streams, but also our drinking water and the various ways people enjoy our waterways.

 

WHAT’S A RIFFLE?

A shallow area where water passes over rocks or other structures, creating turbulence or small disturbances in the flow of water. Because the disturbances increase the amount of dissolved oxygen, and there are many small spaces in the rocks and other structures, riffles provide good habitat for macroinvertebrates (e.g. snails and insects, such as dragonflies).

 

SOME MORRISON HISTORY

In the 1920s, the stream was called Millard Creek. At least one other local creek has the same name, and there’s Mallard Creek to confuse things further. The Morrison family owned property from Arden Road to Willemar Avenue and from 1st Street to Lake Trail Road. 

 

BEECHER LINTON PROPERTY

In the 1870s, settlers worked with Reginald Pidcock to build a ditch and flume, diverting water from Morrison Creek, near the present day foot bridge in Roy Morrison Park to a mill pond in what is now the Shoppers Drug Mart parking lot in Courtenay. The water powered Pidcock’s new lumber mill at the foot of Sixth Street. There is a photo of the old mill hanging in Home Hardware (Central Builders). A portion of that ditch remains visible today. Part of it was reactivated in the 1980s to enhance juvenile coho habitat.

 

LEUNG MARKET GARDEN

The Linton Property includes the location of the historical Leung family farm. During the early 1900s, the Leungs supplied the main agricultural products that sustained the early settlers. The China Trail, was a wagon road that linked the Leung farm with the growing communities of Cumberland and Courtenay.

 

GWILT LOGGING COMPANY

The remains of a sawmill operated by the Gwilt Logging Company can still be seen in the Linton Property portion of the Morrison Creek headwaters. The mill burned down in the early 1920s, but pieces of it can still be seen.

 

SETTLEMENT EXPANSION AREAS

The settlement expansion areas have been identified as future growth areas for the adjacent urban municipalities. Development is limited in these areas to ensure the phased and timely development of lands that is consistent with the goals and objectives of the member
municipalities. The areas contain a broad range of uses . Generally, significant change to the existing land use or further subdivision that increases the density, impact or intensity of use of land is not envisioned until these areas have been amalgamated with the adjacent
municipality, except in those areas where public infrastructure is required to address environmental issues. — From the Rural Comox Valley Official Community Plan

 

HOW YOU CAN CONTRIBUTE

To make a donation to the Comox Valley Lands Trust effort to acquire the Morrison Creek headwaters, click here

To volunteer with the Morrison Creek Stream Keepers, click here

 

 

CIC Director Greg Baute hopes to redefine cannabis breeding

Greg Baute, the director of breeding and genetics at the pioneering Cannabis Innovation Centre in Comox, is a scientist. But to fully understand Baute, you need to know that there’s another, equally powerful side to his scientific mind.

Stormwater systems shift slowly toward green infrastructure

Stormwater management plans in the Comox Valley have historically treated rainwater as waste, something to be collected and disposed of quickly, usually into previously clean streams or directly into the ocean. Clearly a new approach is needed.

Brooklyn Creek: it’s surviving, but faces old and new threats from upstream development

Brooklyn Creek: it’s surviving, but faces old and new threats from upstream development

Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society President Robert Deane at the mouth of the stream     Photo by George Le Masurier

BY GEORGE LE MASURIER

This is the third in a series of articles

The Comox Valley is fortunate to have several waterways in its urban environment that support salmon and other fish. But it also has many that are either dead or an aquatic life support.

Brooklyn Creek in Comox had an usually big run of salmon two years ago, but it normally can only manage to sustain a smattering of fish. But it does still have fish, primarily thanks to an active group of stream keeper volunteers, who have grand plans to revitalize the creek with a pathway from Comox Bay to Courtenay.

They face difficult challenges from multiple jurisdictional governance, an uncertain future of the creeks’ great asset and a powerful developer operating in its headwaters.

The problems for Brooklyn Creek begin at its headwaters

Until about 30 years ago, most of the rainwater that fell in the natural forest at the top of Ryan Road Hill was soaked into the ground, about 50 percent. Some evaporated back into the atmosphere, about 40 percent.

And about 10 percent trickled down the surface of the southeast slope toward Comox Harbour, forming many tiny tributaries that eventually came together as Brooklyn Creek.

It would have taken days, perhaps weeks, for a drop of surface water in the creek to travel from the top of the hill to Comox Harbour. The water that had soaked into the ground wouldn’t have reached the harbour for years.

But then the Crown Isle golf course and residential community was built by the Silverado Corporation, followed by the Cascadia Mall and other commercial development further up the slope. With the trees and natural vegetation replaced by impervious surfaces, the hydrology changed.

Map of Brooklyn CreekNow, only about 30 percent of the rain evaporates, and only 15 percent or less soaks into the ground. That leaves more than 55 percent of the rainfall to runoff from streets and roofs and cause flooding, if it isn’t somehow managed.

So Crown Isle captures this excess rainfall through storm drains opening into large underground pipes, and dumps it all into Brooklyn Creek. Lower down the slope to Comox Harbour, the Town of Comox does the same thing.

There are, in fact, 24 stormwater pipes emptying into Brooklyn Creek today, carrying water contaminated with oil and heavy metals left by automobiles, pesticides, herbicides and animal feces.

And the pipes gush toxic water at such a high volume and fast rate after rainfalls that, without the efforts of the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society, the stream today would be dead.

That it can still sustain a small spawn of fish today is a miracle.

Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society

“That the stream can sometimes support salmon and trout in an urban environment is just magic,” Robert Deane, president of the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society, told Decafnation. The group was formerly known as the Brooklyn Creek Stream Keepers.

But it’s more than magic, it’s long hours of hard work by a dedicated group of volunteers. For the last 12 years, society volunteers have done in-stream work on the lower creek section within the Town of Comox to create new fish habitat.

The volunteers have replaced what was destroyed by erosion from raging flows after rainfalls or by unwitting property owners along the creek who engaged in “stream cleaning.” They hauled in logs every year to create fish passages, rock dams, pools and riffles to mimic naturally occurring spawning grounds.

They have slowly rerouted the walking paths that follow the creek from its mouth up to Noel Avenue, near the private elementary school, to move them away from the creek and allow more natural vegetation to cover its banks. Fish need shade and cool water temperatures.

They do an annual smolt count to monitor the health of the creek for wildlife.

And they launched a new program this year on Earth Day to tackle the invasive species, such as English Ivy, that are crowding out natural vegetation. The stream keepers spent two days hacking away invasive growth and only cleared 50 metres of the stream. But their work filled a two-ton truck, donated by the Town of Comox to haul away the debris.

“The town has been a good partner,” Deane said. “Our aims and the town’s aims are aligned.”

To curtail flooding and downstream erosion of creekside properties, the town spent nearly $2 million in the early 2000s to install a flow diverter near Pritchard Road with a threshold gate. After heavy rainfalls, as much as 70 percent of the stormwater gets diverted into a pipe that discharges directly into Comox Harbor near Filberg Park.

But both Deane and another stream keeper, Larry Jefferson, suspect it’s not working as well as it used to, taking flow out of the creek that it needs in the drier summer months to sustain life.

“The diverter requires maintenance, and it soon will have to be rehabilitated,” Jefferson said.

The stream keepers apply for grants every year to support their projects and the town usually matches them. Combined, they have spent over $100,000 in the last 10 years, he said.

All of this work on the bottom end has made the creek more resilient to the upstream issues in Courtenay and Area B.

A multi-jurisdictional dilemma

Most people think of Brooklyn Creek as a stream that flows through Comox. That’s probably because the Comox section is mostly visible and offers a creekside pathway down through Mack Laing Park to its mouth into the harbour.

But Brooklyn Creek actually starts in Courtenay at Crown Isle and then travels through Area B on the northwest side of Anderton Road and across Birkdale Farm, before crossing Guthrie Road into Comox.

Brooklyn's three jurisdictionsAll three local governments don’t necessarily have the same attitude toward the creek, or urban creeks in general. And that makes it hard to create a common 100-year plan for the entire watershed.

In August, the Partnership for Water Sustainability in B.C. (PWSBC), released a Ecological Accounting Process (EAP) report that showed the monetary value of Brooklyn Creek to the Town of Comox in terms of its stormwater conveyance system — to oversimplify, what the town would have to spend if the creek didn’t exist.

Tim Pringle, chair of the EAP initiative for PWSBC, says application of the EAP provides local governments with a way to select solutions for drainage infrastructure that draw from both nature’s assets and engineered works.

“This would accomplish two desired outcomes: protect watershed health (hydrological functions); and achieve a balanced approach  to funding life-cycle costs,” he said.

The Brooklyn Creek EAP report praises the cooperation between the town and the watershed society, and notes that Courtenay and the CVRD do not have Brooklyn Creek management plans.

“It’s the first EAP in B.C. for a natural asset that resides in multiple jurisdictions,” Vanessa Scott, a member of the watershed society, told Decafnation. “It was a pilot project showing the way forward for municipalities to adapt to climate change.”

The EAP report measures the creek’s value in terms of property values, green space, stormwater conveyance, volunteers hours and grant funding. It was presented to Comox Council in August.

But when the council was asked at the end of the presentation to create a Brooklyn Creekshed plan, no council member would make the motion, Scott said. The council instead asked staff to make a recommendation sometime this fall.

The main problem, as Deane sees it, is that the problems created for the creek by Crown Isle and other headwaters developments don’t impact anyone in Courtenay. All the impacts are felt by downstream property owners in Area B and Comox.

“I would like to have some Crown Isle residents, or just Courtenay residents, join our group,” Deane said.

Scott says people should not assume their local governments are looking after their streams.

“The lack of a management plan for upper and middle Brooklyn Creek threatens all the work done in Comox,” she said. “Comox is a stakeholder in Courtenay development, but there’s no multi-party management plan.”

Birkdale Farm

Guy SimGuy Sim runs a dairy farm on about 190 acres, most of it bordered by Guthrie, Knight and Anderton roads. It’s a family farm started by his grandparents, George and Mabel Laban, in 1920. His father, Alex Sim, took it over in 1950 and passed it on to Guy in 1970.

The farm acts as a giant sponge that soaks up some of the creek’s water into the ground, and provides the riparian vegetation around the creek that fish need.

Brooklyn Creek cuts a Z-shaped swath across the main farmland, flooding portions of his field many times every year. It didn’t used to flood so often.

The creek used to only flood after an rare heavy rain. Now — after the development of Crown Isle — it takes much less rain to cause flooding. Sim said even a half-inch of rain causes flows in the creek to breach its banks.

In one spot where a farm road for moving equipment crosses the creek, there used to be two 36-inch culverts that handled peak flows. Sims added a third 36-inch culvert to handle the increase in creek volume coming from the deforestation of Crown Isle and Lannan Forest, and they still overflow.

The flooding kills his grass if the water lingers more than a day or two, and after a flood swans and ducks fly in to eat the submerged grass when it’s easy to pull up.

He needs the grass to feed herd of about 230 Ayrshire cows. He has to purchase additional feed to get through the winter.

And when it floods, Sim can’t let his cow graze in those areas because their hooves would tear up the soggy ground. Nor can he move his equipment in such soft ground.

And it’s not just flooding that causes Sim hardships. Garbage like plastics and other debris get into the creek and spill out onto his grazing land.

Sim has fought with local governments for years, He’s asked for a pond where the creek enters at the northwestern portion of this property, something a consultant report recommended many years ago. But it was never done.

Facing new threats

Despite the Crown Isle development and the loss in 2008 of the Lannan Forest, a 40-acre parcel of second-growth trees adjacent to Longland’s Golf Course, which is a secondary headwaters of Brooklyn Creek, the stream is surviving, if barely.

But there are new threats on the horizon.

Silverado has purchased Longlands property. The Crown Isle developer says they have no plans to redevelop the par-three golf course, but a future development there would pile additional pressure on the creek.

And Guy Sim is nearing retirement age, but he has no family to take over the farm. The Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society worries about what might happen to this prime land in the Agricultural Land Reserve if Sim decides to sell.

Sim himself doesn’t know what he will do when that time comes.

“I’m working on a plan,” he told Decafnation.

Chris Hilliar, a former Comox officer with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said Sim’s farm is “the best thing Brooklyn Creeks has going for it.”

“It would be a travesty if that place is ever developed,” he said.

Looking ahead

Robert Deane, president of the Brooklyn Watershed Society, says there is a vision that could save Brooklyn Creek from dying the “death by a thousand cuts” that has killed other urban streams, like Golf Creek.

Deane and others envision extending the walking trail along the creek all the way through Sim’s farm, along the right of way next to Idien’s Way and into Crown Isle.

When the Comox Valley Regional District installed the new Hudson trunk sewer line, from Crown Isle along Parry Place and Idien’s Way, the steam keepers convinced them to set it off to the side of the road and create a right of way for an eventual trail. The creek follows the same route.

“That may seem contrary to the objective of keeping the creek natural,” Deane said. “But if people use the pathway and see the creek, then they will own it and be supportive.”

“The Tsolum River was brought back life,” Deane said. “All we have to do is give them good, clean water, and the fish will do the rest.”

 

“Brooklyn Creek is a small creekshed whose hydrology and ecological services have been altered and degraded by decades of land use impacts,” — Tim Pringle in the preface to Assessing the Worth of Ecological Services Using the Ecological Accounting Process for Watershed Assessment: Brooklyn Creek Demonstration Application in the Comox Valley.

 

 

WHAT IS THE ECOLOGICAL ACCOUNTING PROCESS (EAP)?

Ecological Accounting Process — “The EAP approach begins by first recognizing the importance of a stream in a natural state and then asking: how can we maintain those ecological values while allowing the stream to be used for drainage,” says Jim Dumont, Engineering Applications Authority with the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC.

“If communities are to truly benefit from use of nature’s assets to provide vital community infrastructure services, then two issues must first be recognized as  being impediments to changes in practice.”

“The first issue is the widespread lack of understanding of the relationship between flow-duration and stream (watershed) health.”

“The second issue is the widespread application of a standard of practice that has led to the current situation of degraded streams, and that has little connection to real-world hydrology.”

 

 

HOW YOU CAN CONTRIBUTE

JOIN — You can join the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society or donate to them.

DONATE — The Comox Valley Conservation Partnership accepts members and donations. The CVCP was formed in 2008, after concern was raised that there was no regional plan in the Comox Valley to prioritize and protect sensitive ecosystems on private land.  The CVCP brings together local community-based groups and other stakeholders to support their projects and provide a voice for the value of conservation in our natural areas.  The CVCP is administered by a program coordinator under the direction of the Comox Valley Lands Trust

 

 

STORMWATER GLOSSARY

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.

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.

RIPARIAN AREAS REGULATION — Riparian areas link water to land. They border streams, lakes, and wetlands. The blend of streambed, water, trees, shrubs and grasses in a riparian area provides fish habitat, and directly influences it. Read more here

STREAMSIDE PROTECTION REGULATION — A fish protection act preceding the Riparian Areas Regulation. Read more here

RUNOFF — Excessive rain or snowmelt that produces 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 emitted from a plant. Every day an actively growing plant transpires five to 10 times as much water as it can hold at once.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Golf Creek: A case study in stormwater planning gone wrong

Golf Creek: A case study in stormwater planning gone wrong

Ken McDonald in front of Golf Creek and the first bank that collapsed and his $15,000 geotextile wall. Photo by George Le Masurier

This is the second in a series of articles about how traditional stormwater management has contributed to the death of waters in our urban environment, and how we’re learning from those mistakes.

Today’s story begins the Tale of Three Creeks: Golf, Brooklyn and Morrison. Golf Creek is dead, Brooklyn Creek is threatened and Morrison Creek is thriving, with a pristine and intact headwaters that the Comox Valley Land Trust and the Morrison Stream Keepers hope to protect.

 

BY GEORGE LE MASURIER

Like most Albertans, Ken and Norine McDonald moved to the Comox Valley for its moderate climate and natural beauty. From the front window of the house they would purchase on Jane Place in Comox, the Beaufort Range of mountains formed a forested backdrop for the K’omoks Estuary as it flowed into the Salish Sea.

Behind the house, the picturesque Golf Creek meandered around a bend on its way to Comox Bay. There were stairs down to a wooden bridge over the creek, where their granddaughter often splashed and played in the water.

They didn’t know then that fecal coliform in the creek could reach 230 times the maximum allowed under BC Ministry of Environment water quality standards, or that mercury levels could exceed limits by 800 times. Or that the water sometimes contained 50 times the provincial maximum of copper, which can be deadly to salmon.

And they did not know initially that the large volume of fast moving water that was undercutting their stream bank came from a confluence of pipes carrying contaminated stormwater runoff from most of downtown Comox.

It’s hard to find Golf Creek today, unless you play golf. The creek runs between the third and fourth holes of the Comox Golf Club, crosses the fourth and fifth fairways, and then disappears into a pipe under the Comox Mall and the Berwick Retirement Community. It surfaces again on private property from the south side of Comox Avenue down to Comox Harbour.

Twenty-three separate municipal stormwater pipes gush contaminated runoff into Golf Creek. Eighty-six percent of the creek is buried and no fish even attempt to swim it. It is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

The lawsuit

After the McDonald’s spent $15,000 constructing a green geotextile wall to guard against further erosion of their property, they discovered the high volume and fast flow rate of the creek after rainfalls was a result of stormwater runoff from the neighborhoods north of the golf course, the course itself and most of downtown Comox. Months later, another section of the McDonalds’ bank collapsed, which will cost another $15,000 to repair.

When the town refused to accept responsibility for the damage and compensate them, the McDonalds filed a small claims court lawsuit in June of 2016. They have spent $20,000 on a nearly three-year legal battle that has not been settled.

“The town’s strategy is simple, bleed our savings until we relent,” McDonald said.

During research for their legal case, the McDonalds discovered the town had commissioned multiple engineering reports that recommended mitigation measures for the high volume and flow rate of Golf Greek. Several of them, including a 26-year-old report by KPA Engineering, advised the town to construct a detention pond to control the release of upstream rainwater and to help settle out contaminates.

The town continues to ignore those recommendations.

Golf Creek: what happened

For 2,000 years, indigenous peoples continuously occupied the stretch of Comox Harbour in the lee of Goose Spit, living off of a wide range of natural food sources. They harvested fish from Golf Creek and Brooklyn Creek, drank their waters and harvested shellfish during the summer low tide cycles.

Colonial occupation and eventual urban development took a toll on both creeks, but Golf Creek suffered the most. While lumber baron Robert Filberg preserved a large chunk of green space for a golf course, through which the creek still flows today, residential development above the golf course buried the creek’s headwaters, and a shopping mall buried a short portion below the course.

But the creek was still alive.

In the 1960s and 1970s, long-time Comox Residents Greg Rohne and Ted Edwards remember seeing fish in the creek, and watching tiny newly-hatched salmon fry. Another long-time resident, Gordon Olsen remembers catching fish in the creek as a teenager.

The creek was still natural below the Comox Mall when the BC Legislature passed the Riparian Areas Regulation (RAR) in July of 2004. It added stricter protections for provincial waters than the previous Streamside Protection Regulations of 1997, which compelled local governments to “protect streamside protection and enhancement areas” from residential, commercial and industrial development.

That should have prevented the town from allowing more of Golf Creek to be buried in pipes, but it did not. The RAR’s accompanying regulations weren’t issued until March 31, 2005.

A few months after the RAR was enacted, Berwick was granted a development permit that included permission to build over Golf Creek. And a building permit was issued on Jan. 4, 2005, just weeks before the enforcing regulations came into effect.

Beyond erosion, health concerns

Leigh Holmes, a retired professional engineer, has lived near the mouth of Golf Creek, about 200 metres downstream from the McDonalds, since 1998. In an affidavit sworn for the McDonalds’ lawsuit, Holmes says the creek has been turned into a sewer.

When a thick white foam coated the surface of the creek in 2002, Holmes “discovered that the Fire Hall was testing foam fire retardant during training and that they had hosed the excess foam into a nearby road gutter.”

Three weeks ago, CFB Comox announced it would conduct precautionary groundwater testing after a toxic substance found in firefighting foams, known as PFAS, was detected in nearby groundwater and Scales Creek.

In his affidavit, Holmes said “the creek is virtually devoid of life and is heavily polluted. The Town of Comox has transformed what once gave sustenance to people for hundreds of years into an open sewer.”

McDonald had concerns about water quality in the creek, because his granddaughter frequently played in it. He took a water sample on Sept. 7 and had it analyzed by Maxxam Analytics in Burnaby and the results interpreted by Victoria biochemist C.A. Sigmund.

Sigmund found high concentrations of nine metal ions, including mercury and copper, and he found an extremely high fecal coliform count, possibly through cross-contamination from town sewer pipes, and most probably from pets, birds and deer, which are abundant in Comox.

The expert noted that the data represented a snapshot in time. He recommended that water quality should be monitored regularly for 12 months, and that point sources of contamination should be identified.

This has not been done, in spite of the fact that the town was repeatedly advised to do water quality testing as far back as a 1999 Koers and Associates Stormwater Drainage Study commissioned by the town.

Even now, the town has not monitored Golf Creek water quality.

Recommendations ignored

The McDonalds commissioned a study by Dr. Richard Horner, an international expert on stormwater located in Seattle, Washington, to analyze the town’s stormwater discharges into Golf Creek and their role in the erosion of McDonalds’ property. Horner assessed nine separate engineering consultant studies between 1992 and 2014 in his analysis.

Horner found the town “ignored recommendations from its consultants, and even its own Official Community Plan that could have prevented or at least arrested the erosion of Golf Creek and the delivery of urban pollutants to Comox Harbour.”

Horner pointed to three reports that specifically recommended an upstream detention pond or other water control measures. He noted three others that recommended water quality monitoring programs.

The town did take some action to divert stormwater from Golf Creek, but Horner found “the actions the Town of Comox did take have been relatively ineffective in addressing the channel erosion and water quality problems created by permitting development without stormwater runoff mitigation.”

Lessons from Golf Creek

The McDonalds say they care about the environment of their community. They have begun a project to construct a net-zero-energy addition to their home, which will create roughly the same amount of energy or more than it consumes. Their home will also manage most of its stormwater via a green roof, a 3,000 gallon rainwater harvesting system and a pervious paver driveway.  

McDonald sees himself as a warrior for change.

“There are three ways to get local governments to improve their stormwater practices … using education, a carrot, or a stick. Some municipalities respond to education, some won’t move until the province hands over bags of money, and sadly, others only change when compelled to do so by a judge.

“Our hope is that the new mayor and council will respond to education.”

The tale of Golf Creek may represent a bad case of urban planning gone wrong, but it is not an isolated case. Over the last several decades, many Comox Valley creeks and streams have disappeared from view and are now in pipes under parking lots, buildings and roadways.

And it’s not an unwarranted fear that without a change in development practices by municipal planning and engineering staffs, and given the region’s rapid rate of population growth, every creek or stream in the Comox Valley could be polluted to death. Many more could disappear entirely despite the tireless work of hundreds of volunteer stream keepers.

Golf Creek may never have fish again. But McDonald hopes to force better stormwater practices by the town that could still help protect Brooklyn Creek and Cathrew Creek, and other Comox Valley waters from dying the same death.

The Town of Comox did not respond to a request for comment on this story. But a lawyer for the Municipal Insurance Association of British Columbia did respond saying “our office has no comment until this court matter ceases.”

 

 

 

 

For further reading …

RIPARIAN AREAS REGULATION — Riparian areas link water to land. They border streams, lakes, and wetlands. The blend of streambed, water, trees, shrubs and grasses in a riparian area provides fish habitat, and directly influences it. Read more here

 

STREAMSIDE PROTECTION REGULATION — A fish protection act preceding the Riparian Areas Regulation. Read more here

 

GEOTEXTILE — Fabrics that, when used with soil, have the ability to separate, filter, reinforce, protect and drain. Read more here

 

FECAL COLIFORM — Microscopic organisms that live in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. They also live in the waste material, or feces, excreted from the intestinal tract. Although not necessarily agents of disease, fecal coliform bacteria may indicate the presence of disease-carrying organisms, which live in the same environment as the fecal coliform bacteria. Swimming in waters with high levels of fecal coliform bacteria increases the chance of developing illness (fever, nausea or stomach cramps) from pathogens entering the body through the mouth, nose, ears, or cuts in the skin. Diseases and illnesses that can be contracted in water with high fecal coliform counts include typhoid fever, hepatitis, gastroenteritis, dysentery and ear infections. Read more here and here

 

RUNOFF — Excessive rain or snowmelt that produces 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.

 

DR. RICHARD HORNER — To read some scholarly articles by this international expert on stormwater, click here

 

PFAS — A group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940s. PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects. Read more here, and here

 

 

 

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

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.