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Gulf Islands' water woes a warning sign for the rest of drought-prone B.C.

Wells run slowly or even go dry as summer droughts become a common feature of life on the islands.

GALIANO ISLAND — At the northwest tip of Galiano Island, Tom Mommsen and Risa Smith have fine-tuned the drip irrigation system they recently installed in their sun-drenched garden to fully water their tomatoes, peas and summer flowers in two five-minute bursts.

The automated system was a costly addition to their conservation efforts, which include metering their water, but the expense was worth it to Smith, an ecologist, because “it’s water.”

Southern Gulf Islanders have always known their water is a precious commodity as their supply depends on the deep, broken-rock aquifers that supply most of it.

In the second straight year of severe drought, worries are creeping in. Wells that draw from those aquifers are running slower or running dry sooner in parched summer conditions. Changing, less-reliable patterns of winter rain in an era of climate change are raising fears about the ability of those aquifers to recharge themselves.

“There are pockets of people who are extremely concerned,” said Mommsen, a biologist and former science journal editor. Others, he said, don’t care. “Then there’s development pressure.”

Mommsen, who has lived on Galiano for more than 30 years, said the southern Gulf Islands are a microcosm of the problems cropping up with extended drought elsewhere, making them a “canary in the coal mine” for the province when it comes to groundwater.

“What’s happening here is going to happen in the entire province,” Mommsen said.

Changing landscaping to drought-resistant shrubs and grasses conducive to a Mediterranean-like climate, collecting winter rainwater in green silo-shaped above-ground tanks to water vegetable patches, and installing cisterns to collect winter well overflows are among the defences many islanders have adopted.

Those measures are being put to the test this year, however, as the province raised the eastern Vancouver Island zone that includes the southern Gulf Islands to drought Level 5, in early July, indicating that “adverse impacts are almost certain.”

In April, the province put in place its drought and water scarcity response plan to outline the support it can offer to communities.

An official from the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness wasn’t made available for an interview, but ministry staff responded to Postmedia questions with an unattributed statement that indicated they are working with local authorities on area-specific drought response plans.

Responses could include drinking water plans that allow for transportation of alternative sources or desalination, according to the statement.

This is the third year in a row, and the earliest that the region has hit Level 5, which leaves islanders “just much more mindful of how much water they use,” said Jesse Keefer, owner of the Bodega Ridge cabins at the north end of the island.

“We’re definitely not going to be taking [water] for granted,” Keefer said. “And, just based on the last few years, implementing some changes, the biggest of which would be looking at [washing] our linens off the island.”

Galiano is one of the “more forward thinking” communities when it comes to water conservation, said William Shulba, senior water specialist in the Islands Trust’s administration.

“They’ve been working on groundwater for many years, same with Hornby Island, because they have an established need and that water is a concern there,” Shulba said.

The Islands Trust, established in 1974 to preserve and protect the islands’ environment, is in a unique position. It isn’t a municipal entity responsible for providing water, but it does control planning and zoning and is acutely aware of the need for water to be available.

And the Trust’s governing policy states that each island should be “self-sufficient in regard to their supply of freshwater.”

The Trust established a freshwater sustainability strategy in 2019 to protect ecosystems on the islands and “preserve or enhance the quantity and quality of drinking water sources for current and future” residents, according to the document.

Shulba said a subsequent report included a major sustainability science program for both surface and groundwater resources that aims to map the aquifers that supply water to individual islands as well as establish the recharge rates of those aquifers.

Galiano Island, for instance, is considered to have a single fractured-bedrock aquifer of “low productivity” and “moderate vulnerability,” according to a Trust overview document.

Steps to protect groundwater and the recharging capacity of aquifers that the Trust can implement include restrictive covenants on development and establishing development permit areas and subdivision servicing requirements, according to the document.

Shulba said that work has helped Trust staff determine how vulnerable groundwater systems are on a regional basis by looking simply at groundwater availability.

On Galiano, he said development permit requirements and zoning have helped planners guide some proposed multi-family housing to more appropriate locations and take on water management plans to protect the recharge capacity of island landscapes.

Some concerned island residents doubt this is happening.

“Many of us feel that very little attention is actually being given to this,” said Jennifer Margison, a relatively new permanent resident of the island who built a house with her husband on an acreage in 2019 after being part-time residents for 17 years.

“We can see how the level of our wells drop during the dry season,” Margison said. “We can also see well interference is another issue.”

That hit home to Margison when a pipe broke in a neighbour’s automated irrigation system while the neighbour was away. It geysered all night before being discovered.

That drained the water from Margison’s completely separate well and left her home without water.

“It took about three days for our well to recharge,” Margison recalls. “And we didn’t know if it would recharge, that’s the really worrisome thing.”

Another worry, she added, is that overusing wells and drawing down aquifers reduces the water pressure underground and increases the risk of saltwater intrusion.

“It just demonstrates what a fragile balance it is when it comes to groundwater,” Margison said.

Margison acknowledged that the Trust has put a considerable amount of money into sustainability studies, but she and fellow critics don’t believe that has resulted in measures to increase sustainability.

Concerns about water conflict with the pressure on Trust communities in all southern Gulf Islands to allow for more affordable multi-unit housing, much like almost every community in the province.

The combined populations of the southern Gulf Islands, excluding Salt Spring Island, increased by 29 per cent to 6,101 permanent residents between 2016 and 2021, according to the 2021 census. On Galiano, the increase was 33 per cent, to just under 1,400 permanent residents. It makes for a debate on the island. The two Galiano Trust committee members who live on the island refused to comment on questions posed by Postmedia.

“Increased pressure for housing and more services and the increased tourism, all of those things are raising concerns for all of us who rely on the groundwater for our potable water,” Margison said.

Margison is among the southern Gulf Island residents who formed a society called Friends of the Gulf Islands, in part to advocate stronger protections for groundwater.

Steve Wright, another of the society’s members on South Pender Island, said doing studies on carrying capacities, to determine what population each island can sustain, should be a priority for the Islands Trust.

“If they’re serious about wondering about how much water is going to be available or might be available in the future, the only way they’re going to be able to establish that is through a carrying-capacity study,” Wright said.

“I would suggest that we have probably reached that level of development now and nobody wants to admit that.”

Residents whose wells falter during the summer have long imported bulk water by truck, much of it from Vancouver Island. Margison worries that anecdotal evidence suggests the need is increasing.

Nick Leslie’s South Island Water Ltd. buys water from Capital Regional District reservoirs for mostly well-dependent customers on southern Vancouver Island, but also serves the southern Gulf Islands, delivering to one or another of them almost daily during the summer. His trucks are a common sight on B.C. Ferries sailings.

“You know, every year it seems that my season starts earlier and ends later,” Leslie said. “And it’s an ongoing concern.”

Shulba said such bulk shipments don’t seem sustainable in light of the Trust’s policy requiring water self-sufficiency, but acknowledged that they’ve become a necessity for some, even with conservation measures that are common on the islands.

Climate change, which has upended the usually dependable seasonal cycles of fall and winter rains that follow summer droughts, is the cloud that hangs over all the immediate issues.

Shulba said climate projections for the southern Gulf Islands estimate that total amounts of precipitation will likely remain stable in the coming decades.

What is changing, however, is that droughts will become longer and more of the precipitation is likely to fall during atmospheric-river storms. Can the land absorb that sudden spate of water for slow release into the islands’ aquifers?

“There are a few areas in the Juan de Fuca where, like, 25 per cent of the annual rainfall can come down in one day,” Shulba said. “If that’s the case, then the majority of the water is unusable, just runs off.”

Shulba lives on Salt Spring Island and, when speaking earlier this summer, said he was struck on recent hikes around his home by how dry the forest understories had become during this year’s drought, eroding their ability to sponge up rainfall.

“I really started thinking towards the late fall, early winter, and wondering if there’s enough absorption capacity to handle the first big rainfalls,” Shulba said.

Ecologist Smith said water sustainability raises complicated issues because matters of the environment and climate change intersect with social needs.

But water availability can be a useful way to illustrate the problems and solutions.

Forest health, for instance, is heavily influenced by the lack of water, which is seen in the die off of drought-shrivelled Western red cedar trees in patches around the southern Gulf Islands, Smith said.

This demonstrates how clearing forests reduces their ability to absorb water for release into aquifers. Rehabilitating landscapes such as wetlands can help mitigate climate change, Smith said.

However, people interested in development might be reluctant to talk about water because “they don’t want water to get in the way of development,” Smith said.

“Yet, if you create a development where people live, and don’t have water, what are they going to do?”

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