Special to the Record
The new normal.
Last summer, as the haze from faraway forest fires was turning the sun red and unprecedented Stage 4 water restrictions were looming, I feared we were making the transition to a “new normal.”
In the end we avoided Stage 4 and winter brought a decent ski season, with enough snowpack to provide meltwater in the spring. Maybe then, the “new normal” wasn’t quite here yet.
But then, 2016 has broken all global records since 1880, as 2014 and 2015 did before it. This year for the first time, NOAA (The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) tells us that global temperature “anomalies” have exceeded one degree Celcius (1C). This, in the context of our global leaders agreeing to stop warming at 2C to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change – not that we’ve figured out how to do that yet.
Here in the Comox Valley we are not likely to perish in a heat wave. Climate refugees are mostly far away, and our beautiful valley is lush and green. Forest fires might become a problem, but we are not in the middle of the boreal forest like Fort McMurray. It seems our part of the world is getting off lightly. In fact, many of us have been enjoying the summer-like weather very much. But the reality is, we have a problem with water.
Just last week the provincial government announced that Vancouver Island has already reached Level 3 drought conditions, the first region of the province to do so. This means that stream flows are already at low levels, and water conservation must begin to help avoid serious ecosystem and/or socioeconomic impacts. Level 3 drought ratings mean that communities are asked to voluntarily reduce their water use by 30 per cent. While our local water restrictions are still at Stage 1, we can expect that to change. In fact, we should prepare for a long, hot summer ahead.
In the Cowichan Valley, officials have already had to make hard decisions about water. Streams and lakes are at record lows, and as of May the snowpack was at only eight per cent of normal. Without taking action, the Cowichan River was at risk of drying up this summer. Thankfully the lake can be managed as a reservoir, so more water is being held back in the hopes that it will last until the fall rains. Only time will tell if this will be enough, both for the salmon that depend on the river, and for the 600 people whose jobs depend on the pulp mill there.
Our global climate troubles can seem overwhelming, since we as individuals have so little impact on our own. While we can and should work to reduce our own carbon footprint, such efforts will always seem intangible. On the other hand, taking action on water conservation is very tangible, and is something that will be required of all of us as we adapt to this new reality. At the community level, water meters are key, as they incentivize conservation and allow major leaks to be detected and fixed. As individuals there are many ways we can adapt, from taking shorter showers and letting our lawns go brown, to changing the way we landscape our yards. The agricultural community is part of the equation too, even if they are relying on wells, since when it comes to water everything is connected. Balancing our desire for locally-grown food with the need to keep the rivers flowing will become an urgent issue, as it already is in California.
We come from a culture where water has always been abundant, and nearly free. As Canadians we are known for our profligate ways with water, since we’ve never really had to think about it much. That is all changing. Water is precious, water is life, and water is going to be a hot topic in the months and years to come.
Tanis Gower has been working to restore aquatic ecosystems and advocate for good water policies for the last 20 years. She is a registered professional iologist from the Comox Valley who works on projects for Watershed Watch Salmon Society, local government, and others.