Special to The Record
Drinking water quality is a hot topic in the Comox Valley, especially since we taxpayers will be required to pay for upgrades to our water system.
Has our drinking water quality declined over time, or have standards changed? It looks to be a bit of both.
Certainly the Ministry of Health has increasingly stringent standards, and now issues boil water advisories for our system based on turbidity alone, rather than on indicators of bacteria in the water. Moreover, the level of turbidity (also known as “cloudiness”) triggering boil water advisories has also changed. When we are not in the middle of intense winter storms, however, the water coming from Comox Lake is generally very good. But it has to be good 365 days of the year, and because it isn’t, we have been mandated to increase our water treatment.
In a parallel process, the Watershed Protection Plan for Comox Lake has just been released. This plan, which has been in the works for the last decade, talks about how to protect our water before it gets “treated.” In fact, the Ministry of Health considers a Watershed Protection Plan to be the first step for water treatment, since treatment becomes easier and cheaper when the source water is good. In other words, the foundation for safe, clean tap water is a healthy watershed.
What kind of shape is our watershed in? We are lucky that it is not more developed than it is, but it is still far from pristine. Historic railway land grants have led to 65 per cent of the watershed being owned by private forestry interests. While much of the rest is in Strathcona Park, the lake’s shoreline has nine different categories of landowners or jurisdictions, making it a popular recreation destination. Critically, the watershed also provides important fish and wildlife habitat. Of course, BC Hydro is also a major player since it draws water from the Puntledge River for power generation. All of this leads to a massive challenge for our Regional District, whose job is to purvey safe drinking water with very little control over the land base. The Watershed Protection Plan, then, aims to bring all the parties together for the sake of the watershed.
The plan has identified 29 risks, with five being categorized as “very high,” nine as “high,” eight as “moderate” and seven as “low.” The risk relating to logging extent and locations is “high,” while off-road vehicle use, camping in undesignated areas, wildfire, flooding and augmentation/concentration of stream flows are the risk factors that are “very high.” This last point refers to the erosion of Perseverance Creek due to a change in the drainage network, which is a problem that has not yet been fixed. This is one source of turbidity, though no-one knows for sure where all the sediment in the water is coming from.
Ultimately, most of the 54 recommendations in the plan deal with factors other than logging. This may be a surprise to some, since logging is the dominant and most controversial land use. Logging practices on private land have very limited public oversight, and the recommendations are a reflection of that reality – though TimberWest does state that it follows up-to-date, science-based best practices.
Most importantly, the plan calls for comprehensive water quality monitoring. This is the only way to determine where our turbidity problems are coming from. For this to happen the Regional District must put water monitoring into its budget, and it is currently not clear whether or when this will happen.
What is the upshot of the Watershed Protection Plan? Ultimately, it may be that all parties have a stronger commitment to co-operate, and that the Regional District will be putting some money – how much is to be determined – into co-ordinating efforts and measuring outcomes. The process of creating the plan has had its own value, in that communication has already been improved.
The Watershed Protection Plan is crucial for water quality, but was not intended to address problems of water supply due to climate change, a shrinking glacier, and a growing population. In fact, Plan recommendations about installing water meters – a time-tested method of water conservation – were not accepted. However, water supply challenges are looming, and will be the topic of a future column.
Tanis Gower has been working to restore aquatic ecosystems and advocate for good water policies for the last twenty years. She is a Registered Professional Biologist from the Comox Valley who works on projects for Watershed Watch Salmon Society, local government, and others.