Water Wise: Watershed a topic at Ec-Asset Symposium

What’s a healthy watershed worth?

Tanis Gower

Special to The Record

What’s a healthy watershed worth? The question arises when we find ourselves paying for services we used to get for free.

Here in the Comox Valley, water problems are always in the news. Besides our much-discussed water filtration plant, we have highly inconvenient and expensive winter flooding. We also have a hidden problem: our underground (and underwater) sewer and stormwater infrastructure is aging, piecemeal, and in need of repair. The current Valley-wide estimate for engineering solutions is up to $200 million. Some of this expense is for normal wear and tear, but much of the needed work is more urgent and expensive thanks to climate change.

Most other BC communities are in the same boat, as our collective water issues have the same root causes: aging infrastructure, with climate change and poor land use choices making things worse.

Thankfully, we do have some options. While some developments will always need the protection of hardscaping and pipes, we can also explore less expensive “design with nature” solutions. Like many things in life, when we work with nature instead of against her, things get easier. In fact, nature gives us incredible, time-proven opportunities to tackle our water-related challenges.

More and more, municipalities are recognizing that nature can help them deal with flooding, sea level rise, water quality and rainwater runoff. This requires an understanding of how engineered infrastructure fits into natural systems, rather than the other way around. Ideally, all land use planning would be done around features such as streams, floodplains, forests, wetlands and shorelines. Our historic choices have closed off some of those options, but we can still embrace a water-first approach. For instance, we can save ourselves a lot of money by preserving areas that naturally flood, rather than developing them. We can be smart about where we allow shoreline development, so that expensive seawalls will not be required to prevent houses and yards from falling into the sea. We can also mimic nature in how we design our new developments or upgrade our old ones, by including features that absorb and clean rainwater like forests do. We can even keep our forests!

Some municipalities have begun to formally value and account for the ecological services received from nature. A major benefit of this new approach is that ecological services will become valued enough to be protected and restored. This is a welcome change for many of us, who have watched our natural assets be degraded or eradicated, only to cause expensive problems further down the road.

This brings us back to the question – what is a healthy watershed worth? This will be one of the topics of discussion at an upcoming Eco-Asset Symposium. Organized by the Comox Valley Land Trust in partnership with local government, community groups and media partners, this exciting two-day event will introduce ​the community to the concept of ecological services, and will explain how nature’s services, or “eco-assets,” can be included in municipal planning.

The Symposium includes a free community presentation the evening of Tuesday March 14, and a full-day workshop on March 15. The evening presentation will provide an overview of our watersheds and their challenges, describe what we can expect from climate change, and introduce the concept of valuing ecosystem services. All community members are invited for this evening. The next day will have technical presentations followed by working sessions, where local professionals and conservation leaders will be invited to look at ways to implement local eco-asset management. Presenters on both days include the Town of ​Gibsons (where eco-asset management is being implemented), hydrologists, climate change scientists, engineers and policy leaders​.

Most of us in the Valley have endured water-related frustrations, whether it is missing classes at the Lewis Centre due to the flooded parking lot, pumping out wet basements, or dealing with the seven boil water advisories over the past three years. Sadly, these types of problems are not going away anytime soon. It is heartening to know, however, that our municipal representatives and staff are being offered more holistic solutions that could make things a little better for us, not to mention the other species we share our living space with.

For more information about the Eco-Asset Symposium, or to register for the March 15 workshop sessions, go to: www.cvlandtrust.ca/eco-assets-symposium.html.

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 with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, local government, and others.