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B.C.'s Sunshine Coast is feeling the effects of a prolonged lack of rain and drought.Nancy Macdonald/The Globe and Mail

Donna McMahon is vice-chair of the Sunshine Coast Regional District. Suzanne Senger is executive director of the Sunshine Coast Conservancy Association.

With October now passed, downpours are finally drenching the Sunshine Coast – but the British Columbia region continues to be impacted by drought.

For the second time in two years, a prolonged lack of rain has led the regional district to prepare for “operational zero,” which refers to the possibility that taps will run dry. A once plentiful water supply is teetering on the edge of depletion, and even though it’s raining, the state of emergency isn’t over.

The major source of drinking water for Sunshine Coast residents, Chapman Lake, lies about 20 kilometres north of Highway 101 in the mountains of Tetrahedron Provincial Park. Access involves a spine-jolting 4x4 crawl up an unmaintained logging road, and then an eight-kilometre hike through subalpine wilderness – roughly a 10-hour round trip in summer.

Last month, after almost 100 days without rain, the two of us trekked into the mountains to survey the situation first hand. Given the fall season, we should have been squelching through mud; instead, our footsteps kicked up dust as we traversed parched subalpine meadows where blueberries shrivelled on the bushes. We found Chapman Lake ringed by an expanse of cracked, drying mud. Whole swaths of silt were visible that had never been exposed to air. We followed elk and bear tracks along the banks.

B.C.’s Sunshine Coast seeks emergency extension as winter water supply ‘uncertain’

The south end of the lake narrows into a channel that flows into Chapman Creek. The water treatment plant for some 22,000 Sunshine Coast residents and their regional hospital takes its water from the creek. When the lake is full, water spills over the top of a small dam. In summer, as the water level drops below the barrier, the utility opens a sluice gate at the bottom of the dam to release more water.

But the whole channel was dry. The lake level lay three metres below the sluice gate and five metres below the top of the dam. In 2015, out of concerns that severe drought could drop water levels below the sluice gate, the district installed five pipes to syphon water from the lake into the creek, and they were used for the first time in 2017. Nobody is sure how far down this system can drain the lake before the syphons stop working. By early October, the lake was already below the lowest level ever experienced.

A similar syphon system was also deployed at Edwards Lake, a smaller lake which provides a back-up source of water; 2022 was the first time Edwards was syphoned.

A small crew from the regional district worked around the clock, brainstorming solutions to problems that nobody ever imagined. As residents heeded pleas to reduce their water usage, the water treatment plant had to be modified to operate at below its minimum capacity. Water main connections to the Town of Gibsons were jiggered to flow backward, so that the town could provide water to the region – something the system was never designed to do.

The change has happened fast: 2012 was the first year that the Sunshine Coast Regional District had to enact Stage 4 water restrictions (no outdoor use of drinking water). Now we’ve reached Stage 4 in five of the last seven years, culminating this year in the first state of emergency declared in the province owing to drought.

Normally our watershed acts as a sponge, taking in water over winter and then releasing it in summer. But after repeated record-breaking droughts (and last year’s heat dome), our sponge is dry, and we have no idea how long it will take to recharge. Since we rocketed from a drought with temperatures exceeding 20 C in the subalpine regions to snow and freezing conditions, we don’t know what that recharge will look like. We’ve entirely skipped the fall, going straight from summer to winter.

In 2021, British Columbia’s coastal and Interior regions shifted rapidly from prolonged drought to massive floods, as atmospheric rivers inundated creeks, setting off landslides and washing out roads. This seems alarmingly likely to happen again.

Ninety per cent of the water on the Sunshine Coast lies underground, yet we have relied on one creek for most of our water supply. The Regional District is diversifying by developing two new aquifer wellfields that will come online in 2023 and 2025. But these water sources are reliant on winter rain falling on forests, building annual snow packs in the high mountains and everywhere soaking slowly into the ground. Those forest ecosystems are increasingly stressed by development and climate change.

Protection of our watersheds is beyond the authority and capacity of local government. If we want to ensure long-term supply, we must work together across sectors and create a water sustainability plan.

The B.C. government has been dragging its heels about establishing a promised permanent Watershed Security Fund to support wetland restoration, monitoring and conservation. It’s needed now, because the emergency is already upon us.

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