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Missing the rain: Drought started in spring, no relief in sight

We had a drier-than-normal winter and every month since has seen below-normal precipitation.
In spite of dry conditions, but with the help of CRD water, Dan Ponchet has an abundance of blueberries ready at Dan’s Farm & Country Market on Bear Hill Road in Saanichton. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A third of the way through July and there’s still no rain in sight for Vancouver Island.

The prolonged drought started in early spring and continues with no substantial rainfall, prompting water restrictions on parts of the Island, warnings about wildfires and key watersheds causing worry.

Ken Dosanjh, meteorologist for Environment Canada, said almost all of the Island hasn’t seen a drop of rain since the beginning of the month and it will remain dry the rest of this week and possibly into the next.

He said the average rainfall for Victoria over the past two years for July has been 17.9 millimetres while Nanaimo was 25.4 millimetres.

“There are still plenty of days and things can change, but any significant amount of precipitation isn’t looking too promising,” said Dosanjh, pointing to a high pressure ridge locked over the south coast.

Temperatures are expected to hover in the mid-20s. A low front from the Pacific is expected to move in late next week, but only bring moisture to the north and central coasts.

Steven Murray, who has been analyzing weather data at the Gonzales station in Victoria for decades, said the last measurable precipitation was on June 20 and the forecast looks like the station will go at least a month without a drop.

Murray said since January only 160 mm of precipitation has been recorded, making it the third driest January-to-June period in the 124 years of record keeping at Gonzales. He said normal precipitation for the period is 300 mm. The driest January-t0-June period was 153 mm in 1973, followed by 156 mm in 1978.

“The interesting things is we’ve also had a drier-than-normal winter as well, and every month since has been below normal,” said Murray.

Half of the province’s watersheds — key sources of drinking water and fish stocks — are at drought Level 4, one level off the most extreme rating.

That’s prompted several municipalities to increase water-use restrictions to preserve as much as possible.

The Chemainus and Koksilah river watersheds are among the Island locations hitting Level 4 this week, as well as the Tsolum River and Black Creek watersheds, the Millstone River in Nanaimo, French Creek near Parksville, Tetayut Creek in Central Saanich and Fulford Creek on Salt Spring Island.

Level 4 drought means regulatory action should be considered to avoid “significant or irreversible harm” to aquatic ecosystems, according the province.

B.C. Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma sounded an alarm this week, saying a climate crisis is here. A province-wide campfire ban — save for Haida Gwaii — was issued, and B.C. has already spent $200 million fighting wildfires, which have burned about 10,000 square kilometres since April 1.

“We are seeing more climate events, major fires and droughts,” said Ma. “This is an extremely challenging time for people and communities. It is immensely stressful.”

She said the severe state of drought that is fuelling a record number of wildfires is unprecedented.

The highest level of water-use restrictions is Stage 4.

The city and regional district of Nanaimo moved to Stage 3 and 4, respectively, last week.

The District of North Cowichan went to Stage 3.

At Stage 4, lawn sprinkling, filling pools and washing vehicles, driveways, parking lots and building are not allowed. Stage 3 restrictions indicate people can water on alternate days during certain times and are asked to voluntarily reduce water use.

The Capital Regional District remains at Stage 1 and has no immediate plans to move higher as the reservoirs in the regional water supply area remain high. The Sooke Lake Reservoir, the main source of water for the CRD, is at about 85% of capacity.

In fact, Jen Zimmerman of the CRD’s Integrated Water Services Division, said the regional water supply hasn’t been at Stage 2 or higher since the Sooke Lake Reservoir dam was raised in 2003.

The reservoir is a combination of a natural lake basin and reservoir created by flooding portions of the surrounding watershed and buttressed by dams.

At its maximum level, Sooke Lake Reservoir is 8.3 kilometres long and 1.6 kilometres wide, with a depth of 75 metres and a total volume of 160.32 million cubic metres, with 92.7 million cubic metres usable for water supply.

During winter months, water consumption across Greater Victoria averages about 98 million litres per day. In the summer months, even with Stage 1 water restrictions in effect, water consumption across the region almost doubles to about 175 million litres per day due to outdoor use.

Since the reservoir receives little to no inflow from rainfall between May and late October, when fall and winter precipitation begins, the summer use draws down the reservoir, meaning Greater Victoria’s drinking water supply relies entirely on the water stored during the winter months.

Zimmerman said the province’s drought ratings for all of Vancouver Island don’t necessarily move in lockstep with water restriction stages.

“We look at several factors when it comes to [water restrictions],” said Zimmerman. “We look at reservoir levels, but also temperatures and long-term forecasts and the use of the system.

“The CRD is carefully monitoring water demands and reservoir levels and will adjust water restriction stages if needed,” she said.

Zimmerman said the CRD’s smaller water systems within the electoral areas of the Southern Gulf Islands and Salt Spring will likely need to move to a Stage 2 or 3 at during the summer because they rely on smaller lakes and reservoirs.

Saanich farmer Dan Ponchet, who was picking berries and vegetables on Tuesday, said he relies on CRD water to grow his produce.

“I don’t know what we would do without it … probably plant a lot less,” said Ponchet.

Dan’s Farm on Bear Hill Road was harvesting pickling cucumbers, green beans, raspberries and blackberries, and seeding new crops of carrots, lettuce, Swiss chard and kale.

He said the problem with little rain and too much heat is that many of the plants are growing too quickly, with some going to seed.

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