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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite Island Health’s efforts, overcapacity still plagues hospitals, stresses staff

Despite Island Health’s efforts, overcapacity still plagues hospitals, stresses staff

Photo by George Le Masurier

BY GEORGE LE MASURIER

This month, like last month, and the month before that and every month since the two new North Island Hospitals opened last year, they have been overcapacity.

So on most days, staff at the Courtenay and Campbell hospitals struggle to find space to put as many as 30-plus extra patients, and the peak hospitalization season that coincides with the influenza season is just getting started.

Overcapacity at the brand new hospitals is not the only critical health care need in the Comox Valley — see the sidebar story on long-term care beds — but it is a serious issue for overburdened hospital workers. And it does not bode well for communities with growing populations, and for whom the capacities of these hospitals were expected to be adequate until 2025.

The new Comox Valley Hospital opened on Oct. 1, 2017 with staff and patients budgeted for 129 beds. It was almost immediately plagued with overcapacity.

Patient numbers soared as high as 178 within a few months, a situation that has continued throughout the year and led to predictable consequences.

Staff trying to care for up to 49 extra Comox Valley patients became stressed and exhausted. They took sick days to recover, which created daily staff shortages and exacerbated the workload problems, according to sources.

Overcapacity also plagues Campbell River Hospital, where the maximum 95 beds were opened quickly and still runs overcapacity.

And it is not good for patients housed in makeshift accommodations at both hospitals.

Dermot Kelly, Island Health executive director for the region, told Decafnation that all hospitals across BC have overcapacity issues, and that the two North Island Hospitals are following an official Overcapacity Protocol.

Kelly said the protocol includes a number of steps to mitigate the overcapacity problems, including “working to reduce the length of stay within hospital, and improve access to care in the community.”

Community access measures include “increasing Home Support hours, implementation of Overnight Care Teams, new specialized services for those with Mental Health and Substance Use Challenges and improved supports for those who are medically frail,” he said.

And, he said the hospitals are working to increase access to Adult Day Programs and respite services “to better support the needs of patients and caregivers in the community.”

And the Comox Valley Hospital recently opened an additional 17 beds, for a total of 146 open beds (of the hospital’s maximum capacity of 153) with increased staffing levels, and moved out 21 long-term care patients, most of them going to a renovated floor at the former St. Joseph’s General Hospital.

Island Health has also increased the number of surgeries at the two hospitals, Kelly said. While that has reduced surgery wait times, it has also increased the number of hospital visits and stays.

But those efforts have so far not reduced patient levels to capacity or below.

The number of admitted patients ranged from 160 to 170 throughout October, reaching a high of 177 on Oct. 12. Those numbers are expected to increase significantly as the annual influenza season gets underway this month.

Sources have told Decafnation that extra patients at CVH have been housed in an unopened section of the emergency room. These patients are on stretchers, without standard beds or the same healing environment as regular rooms.

The Campbell River Hospital also remains dramatically overcapacity, but unlike the Comox Valley it has no unopened space to house them. Sources say patients are parked in hallways.

 

Overcapacity raises staff issues

A CVH source, who requested anonymity, said the overcapacity issues have kept staff morale low.

“We opened up a new ward and the morale is still not wonderful,” a source told Decafnation. “We are overcapacity everyday, and patients are getting discharged too early. I know this because the exact same patients that were discharged are back two days later.”

“People are without beds and there’s a full ward of aging population in the emergency overflow areas,” another source said. “We put elderly people in the pediatric ward sometimes. This causes so many issues.”

For some CVH workers, stress is caused by too many vacant positions, which forces staff into overtime, and because some departments didn’t get extra staff when the last hospital ward was opened.

Kelly said there were 91 vacant staff positions as of Dec. 6 between the two hospitals, which he blamed partly on the region’s rental and housing affordability issues that “directly impacted our ability to fill vacant positions and retain staff.”

Campbell River sources tell Decafnation that their hospital had more than 130 admitted patients last week. The hospital was designed for a maximum capacity of 95.

Campbell River staff are concerned that patient-to-nurse ratios are not being met. Overtime is rampant, they say, and staff is “being run off their feet.”

“Patients are now located in emergency rooms,” the source said. “Third floor sunrooms have been converted to bedrooms and two patients per room is common.

“There are rooms where one of the two patients has an infectious condition that should be in isolation.”

Our source said they feared this could cause a MRSA or similar infection alert.

But Kelly said Island Health’s Over Capacity Protocols ensure safe care in the hospitals.

“In cases of over census, guidelines for care have been developed to ensure we provide the best care possible. Our main goal is to provide safe and effective care in the most appropriate setting possible,” he said.

And he praised the hospitals’ staff as “incredibly passionate and dedicated, sometimes under challenging circumstances.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

NO WORD YET ON PROMISED 151 LONG-TERM CARE BEDS

As a strike by care workers at two Comox Valley assisted living facilities enters its sixth day, many people are wondering what happened to the 151 additional long-term care beds promised by Island Health last year?

The critical shortage of long-term care and respite beds in the Comox Valley continues to cause problems for at home caregivers, many of whom are exhausted and in crisis. And it causes overcapacity issues at the Comox Valley Hospital, where patient s who need long-term care are stuck in acute care beds.

The contract award for new beds is already three months late and, according to an Island Health spokesperson, no announcement is imminent.

Island Health issued a Request for Proposal for 70 new long-term care beds over three years ago, but cancelled it a year later, and issued a new RFP this year. The health authority said it would award contracts by Aug. 31 of this year.

When it missed that deadline, Island Health said the contracts would be announced later in the fall. Now, three months later, the contracts have still not been awarded.

Asked what is holding up the awarding of contracts, Island Health spokesperson Meribeth Burton said, “Awarding a long-term care contract is a complex, multi-stage process. We want to ensure we are thoughtful in our decision because this facility will serve the community for decades to come.”

Island Health could give no date when the awards would be announced.

“We understand the community needs these additional resources and is anxious to learn when the contract will be awarded. We will be able share more details with the community once a project development agreement is finalized with a proponent,” she said. “We don’t have a firm date, but we will let you know as soon as we can.”

Burton said Island Health still pins the timeline for opening the new long term care beds at 2020.

In the meantime, 21 long-term care patients were relocated back to the former St. Joe’s Hospital, which reopened and renovated its third floor to create an additional and temporary long-term care facility. St. Joe’s already operates The Views for about 120 long-term patients. The new facility in the old hospital is called Mountain View.

The move was planned in part to relieve overcapacity issue at the Comox Valley Hospital.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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.

 

 

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Vaccine available for the virus headed our way

Vaccine available for the virus headed our way

By George Le Masurier

Vancouver Island health care professionals are warning about a serious virus headed our way. Fortunately, there’s a vaccine.

 

Vancouver Island health care professionals are warning about a serious virus predicted to hit the Comox Valley in just a few weeks. The disease will hospitalize many and in some cases threaten the lives of those most vulnerable.

Fortunately, the Comox Valley Public Health Unit has a vaccine that can protect against the disease, and prevent its spread throughout the community.

It’s called the ‘flu shot.

North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine Enns said her offices started distributing the vaccine in October to Comox Valley medical offices and pharmacies, where most people get their annual vaccinations. And more people are getting them this year, probably due to a particularly bad epidemic last year.

Enns said the health unit had distributed more doses in the North Island by the end of last week — 35,000 — than it had last year in total. That mirrors Island-wide figures: 218,000 doses distributed so far this year, compared with a total of 225,000 during the 2017-2018 season.

But even this year’s upward trend in vaccinations isn’t enough, Enns told Decafnation. Only about 29 percent of the total Island population was vaccinated last year.

“The higher the vaccination percentage, the less likely the virus will spread,” Enns said. “We call it herd immunity. The vaccine protects those most at risk, and lessens the chance in others of transmitting it.”

The concept of herd immunity is how the world has eradicated major killer diseases. Vaccines have eliminated smallpox, which killed more than 500 million people, and has nearly vanquished polio. When more people get immunized, the risk factor diminishes for everyone. And that reduces the cost to the public health health care system.


The purpose of providing ‘flu vaccine is to reduce the likelihood of severe complications and death from influenza


 

Enns said those most at risk at the elderly and the very young. About 3,500 Canadians died last year, including several on Vancouver Island, from complications caused by influenza, such as heart attacks and pneumonia.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Toronto found that the risk of heart attacks jumped by 600 percent within the first days of an influenza infection.

Enns said public health can only estimate the number of deaths and hospitalizations caused by influenza, because it isn’t the disease itself that kills. The virus causes inflammation in the body, so the arteries in someone with heart disease close up more and trigger a heart attack or stroke.

The danger is similar for people with chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma, or with kidney issues.

The University of Toronto study, which examined 20,000 patients with confirmed influenza, also found that the ‘flu shot reduced the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 20 percent, and infected people were less likely to be hospitalized.

About 538 people were hospitalized with confirmed cases of influenza on Vancouver island last year. But the number is probably many times higher because infected people don’t often get formally diagnosed.

Because the influenza virus mutates frequently, the Canadian Centre for Disease Control produces a new vaccine every year based on estimates of those mutations. As a result, the vaccine is usually between 60 percent and 70 percent effective.

“But it’s a good as we’ve got,” Enns said. “People who’ve had the ‘flu shot won’t get as sick and especially the most vulnerable. The purpose of providing ‘flu vaccine is to reduce the likelihood of severe complications and death from influenza.”

Some of the most vulnerable are frail seniors resident on long-term care facilities, due to their age and the probability of having health issues.

Enns said that makes it more important for those who care for them and visit them to get vaccinated and mount up their own immunity.

A cold weather virus

Medical professionals have puzzled over why influenza virus strikes hardest every year from November through March. Some theories suggested the short days and lack of sunshine, causing a vitamin D deficiency. Others theorized that people are crowded together indoors.

But most health professional now accept the conclusions of a 2007 study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York: cold, dry weather keeps the virus more stable and stays in the air longer.

‘Flu season in Canada starts in the eastern provinces and moves west as temperatures drop. Calgary has already been hit hard, with 510 confirmed cases since August.

In southern latitudes, the main ‘flu season runs from May until September. In the tropics, there is no real ‘flu season.

Why you should get the ‘flu shot

The ‘flu vaccine is our best defense against the virus and will not only protect you, but also the people you know and love.

–You can’t get the ‘flu from the ‘flu shot. It’s impossible. The viruses used to make the flu shot are dead. The worst side effect is a sore arm.

— It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to fully mount your immunity, so it’s best to get the shot early.

–Healthy people need to get a flu shot to protect people at risk and those who are not eligible. Newborn babies and adults with abnormally weak immune systems usually can’t get ‘flu shots. Their only protection comes from others getting the shot, and keeping the spread of ‘flu to a minimum.

— Influenza is a more serious infection than you may realize. It will exacerbate any underlying health conditions you already have, and may cause new problems, which for some can be deadly.

— It’s hard not to qualify for a publicly-funded (read: free) vaccination.

 

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The growing pains of updating BC’s water law

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

 

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 headwaters are unique on Vancouver Island

The Comox Valley Lands Trust is “this close” to conserving a small portion of the unique Morrison Creek headwaters, but has its sights on protecting the entire oasis of swamps, ponds and marshes. A conservation area the size of Stanley Park.

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