When summer hits Salt Spring Island, Laura Patrick puts a big bucket in her shower whenever she uses it. She does the same with her sink, saving every extra drop for her garden. Water – and the limited amount she has access to – is never too far from her thoughts.
Ms. Patrick, a local trustee who has been involved in water governance since 2018, jokes that she’s been considering making a custom T-shirt to sum up the problem. The slogan? Water is messy.
“If you come from Toronto, Vancouver or a larger urban area, you just turn the taps on and they work. You don’t really have to think very hard about where your water is coming from,” she said.
Not so on the Gulf Islands.
“I’m not always sure how much homework people do before they think about moving into a rural area – and then a rural area on an island,” Ms. Patrick said.
The glittering Salish Sea surrounding the Gulf Islands is a constant reminder that almost all potable water on the islands comes from rainwater and wells. So, as the islands between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia swell with new residents, their patchwork, aging water systems are under pressure to keep up with the population boom and climate change.
Recent census data show that, with their mild climate and folksy rural character, the Gulf Islands are growing at more than double the national rate.
“When COVID-19 hit, I made five, 10 new friends from Alberta,” said Benjamin McConchie, a trustee of North Pender Island. “I don’t think you can meet an islander here that wouldn’t agree that water is one of the big issues.”
The dozen or so inhabited islands in the archipelago have long attracted residents for the views and the hippie lifestyle and, until about five years ago, enjoyed relatively cheap property prices.
Salt Spring, the most populous now, with almost 12,000 permanent residents, grew more than 10 per cent in the past five years. Galiano Island and Mayne Island, which together form the strait that ferries use to travel between Vancouver and Victoria, both grew more than 30 per cent in the same period. And the populations almost double during the summer, when the water levels are at their lowest, exacerbating the supply problem.
With more mainlanders looking for retirement homes and new residents embracing a work-from-anywhere opportunity, the strain on island water systems is leading to political conflict and environmental concerns.
A single island with about a thousand residents may have more than a dozen water systems. Wells are sprinkled everywhere in between, servicing homes that aren’t hooked up to the water grid.
B.C.’s Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said in a statement that a future watershed security policy will be launched next year, but the statement gave no details about whether Gulf Island residents could eventually see some uniformity in how water is managed. Rather, it said the process would “allow watershed issues like those experienced in the Gulf Islands to be explored.”
The Islands Trust, the governing body established for the preservation of the islands, has been working on the issue for about 15 years, said chair Peter Luckham, a long-time Thetis Island resident. Hoping to head off future crises, the trust is looking to incorporate both Indigenous knowledge and scientific data in its watershed protection strategy.
“When the islands were developed by people looking to get a cabin here, they didn’t think about what was going to happen in the future. The planning wasn’t quite there,” Mr. McConchie said. “Now, things are catching up.”
The area faced a severe drought in 2021, prompting residents to ask visitors to bring in their own water. They are bracing for a repeat this year.
“We are seeing water shortages already,” said Matthew McCrank, the senior manager of wastewater infrastructure operations at the Capital Regional District, adding that several systems in the past few years have had to truck in water during the summer.
In the meantime, residents have been forced to make costly decisions. One community on Pender Island took out a 30-year loan in order to do maintenance on its sewer system. The island also drained its fourth-largest body of fresh water in 2019 when the cost of maintaining the dam ballooned to $250,000 for each nearby resident.
Bowen Island residents are divided on who should be paying to upgrade and maintain the various sewage and water storage systems dotting the island.
Many more homes are on individual wells, which bring their own set of problems. Domestic groundwater use is not regulated in the province.
“You have a leak, or forget to turn something off, and you could burn up your pump, dry up your well,” Ms. Patrick said. “Those kind of little mistakes are extremely costly when you live on a well.”
Trucking in water costs about $1,200 per shipment for a volume that would cost less than $50 from taps.
Local authorities are slowly attempting to harmonize land-use regulations to take into account the concerns over water supply. For example, Mr. Luckham has long championed that new housing developments be required to submit water catchment plans.
Water conservation groups that have sprung up across the Gulf Islands want to tackle the problem from both the supply and the demand side: advocating for more stringent water-tiered pricing to encourage conservation, while educating residents and sharing resources about rainwater collection systems.
To them, the solution is obvious: Use less water over all and save more during the rainy season.
“We’re a very community-oriented island, so we don’t want it to get to a situation of conflict. Understanding what we have and understanding how the [water] is being used, we can stay away from having any conflict,” said Bernie Amell, a semi-retired environmental consultant who specializes in natural water management and is a volunteer with Quadra Island’s Climate Action Network.
“If we’re getting some climate-change effects already and we’re getting increasing numbers of households being built – the two things, is there going to be a collision at some point where we run out of water?” Mr. Amell said.
“It’s better to know ahead of time. We’re trying to be wise.”
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