February 8, 2017
Conservation – The New Reality
The climate in BC has changed significantly over the past century and Salt Spring Island is no exception. Increasing global temperatures have caused changes to the water cycle and we can no longer assume that water will be there when we need it. Summer drought is the new normal for Salt Spring and both the District and islanders must come to terms with it. Residents, business owners, farmers, and tourists must all use less water in order to reduce risk and maximize the benefit of our precious water resources. Just as the District is working to ensure a reliable supply of water for the future, so must ratepayers accept and plan for this new reality.
Concerns About Lack of Water
NSSWD understands that some people in the community are concerned about the lack of water for new or expanded development, and about the watering restrictions placed on all District ratepayers during times of shortage such as the severe summer droughts of 2015 and 2016. The District currently has studies underway to more clearly define the limitations of the St. Mary Lake water source both now and as the climate changes. Combined with planning information from the Islands Trust, the studies will enable the District to determine how much water, if any, remains for new development.
The Needs of All Customers are Considered
In the BC Drought Response Plan, the provincial government defines the significance of a Level 4 Drought as a “water supply insufficient to meet socio-economic and ecosystem needs”. Level 4 drought is a serious situation and the District treats it as such. The District also recognizes that, in times of shortage, there is a hierarchy of needs that places basic domestic use by humans and critical environmental flows at the top. While all ratepayers are important, decisions made during critical shortages reflect careful consideration of all needs and are informed by provincial government guidance.
Recently, many people may have heard that the owners of Fraser’s Thimble Farm feel that they should have unrestricted access to water during even the most serious of droughts and that the District has threatened to revoke their watering permit. The District feels that the situation warrants a more complete explanation and that the community needs to appreciate the complexity of the issues in order to fully understand the difficult decisions that the Board of Trustees must make.
The Board must balance the needs of all ratepayers when making decisions and cannot favour one customer over another or enter into a debate over the merits of one type of customer over another. In the world at large and on Salt Spring, businesses are responsible for their own planning and must continually adapt to meet changing conditions and prices.
At no time were the owners of Fraser’s Thimble Farm told by the District that their water service would be cut off. They have been encouraged to conserve and look for supplemental sources of water, which they are doing. During the 2015 and 2016 droughts, when the District went to Water Conservation Level 2, Fraser’s Thimble Farm was given a permit to allow them to use additional water outside their allotted time, while public parks and sports fields were required to apply for a permit to use any water at all. When the drought worsened and the District went into Water Conservation Level 3 restrictions, watering of public parks, open spaces, and sports fields was completely banned; however, Fraser’s Thimble Farm was permitted to continue watering outside their allotted times, and were still allowed to continue even when the District moved to Water Conservation Level 4.
All watering permits state “this permit may be rescinded at any time at the District’s discretion if drought circumstances warrant” so that the permit holder clearly understands the need to plan for such a contingency. As Fraser’s Thimble Farm uses large volumes of water, their permit was regularly reviewed against water supplies. Due to the conservation efforts of all, St. Mary Lake remained above the critical level and it was not necessary to rescind any permits; however, had the lake fallen below the critical level, and the District began to incur substantial costs for the required environmental monitoring, watering permits would have been rescinded. Even in such a situation, Fraser’s Thimble Farm would still have been allowed to water during the times allocated to all users. In future droughts, the same process will be followed. We work to find solutions that are as fair and equitable as possible for all.
Fraser’s Thimble Farm is not alone in their struggle. In both 2015 and 2016, the Gulf Islands Secondary School playing fields died and had to be replanted at the expense of taxpayers. At the same time, many residents were forced to significantly curtail watering of their food and ornamental gardens. Many valuable ornamental plants and native species such as cedar trees died because they were unable to withstand the drought.
All ratepayers, particularly those with significant outdoor water usage, should focus on how they can best adapt through conservation and augmentation measures such as rainwater catchment and greywater re-use for irrigation needs.
The District recognizes that access to water is essential for all social and economic activity and will continue to work to find solutions that are as fair and equitable as possible for all ratepayers. However, it should be clear to all that ‘business as usual’ is no longer possible and all ratepayers should undertake the steps necessary to ensure the viability of their properties and businesses. Increasing conservation-oriented water rates, restrictions and permits are all signals that the time to act is now.
The Board greatly appreciates the cooperation received from our many customers in reducing their summer consumption. To date, doing so has allowed the District to serve all its customers without undertaking more extreme measures which would severely impact all District households, facilities and businesses.
For more information on watering permits and to view a copy of the letter sent to Fraser’s Thimble Farm, please visit the District website.
Marshall J. Heinekey
Chair, Board of Trustees