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Monique Keiran: Managing water is becoming critical

When government officials and industry specialists gather downtown on Tuesday, they’ll be discussing an issue rarely off the public radar for long in this region: water management.

When government officials and industry specialists gather downtown on Tuesday, they’ll be discussing an issue rarely off the public radar for long in this region: water management.

The Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia and the Irrigation Industry Association of British Columbia are hosting the one-day workshop, Convening for Action on Vancouver Island: How Managing Water Now Will Shape the Future.

The forecast calls for rain.

Sure, we enjoyed one of the region’s drier summers. Rivers dropped to worrisome levels. Water restrictions up-Island were extended past their usual end dates.

We’ve also experienced the soggy lash of hurricane Ana’s remnants. And, in September, a storm so sudden and intense hit the region that water gushed out from manhole covers onto Victoria’s streets. In October, the beach at Cadboro Bay was closed to the public yet again, because high-rainfall mixing of stormwater and sewage in Oak Bay’s aging drain system flushed human waste into the bay.

And the City of Victoria officially announced its new stormwater utility.

We’ve been warned many times by many different sources that managing water in the region will become increasingly critical in coming years. More people moving into the region will increase demand on water resources. Climate change might yield more extreme annual drought-deluge cycles for the south coast, with hotter, drier summers and more frequent, more intense storms during the rest of the year.

See-sawing from not enough water to too much water all at once, we can do only so much to control the effects of our underlying geology and our overlying climate.

For example, the granitic bedrock beneath much of the region funnels and directs surface water from high to low areas through entire neighbourhoods. It diverts and pools water according to the rock’s folds, ridges and runnels. Ephemeral creeks suddenly gush through the basements of some older houses. Seasonal marshlands appear in some backyards.

The shallow topsoils over the bedrock hold only so much water, no matter how rich they are or how dense the moss and shrubs.

Take that geography, add a series of torrential rainstorms that charge across the region in quick succession like locomotives, pump the wind bellows, and the towering Douglas fir trees and gnarly Garry oaks and arbutus rooted in these thin, waterlogged soils start to topple onto homes, businesses, vehicles and power lines.

Remember December 2006. Eight years ago this week, thousands of property owners throughout the region discovered first hand these combined effects of geology and extreme-rain events. They also discovered the defects in many property-drainage systems and the limitations of home-insurance plans regarding overland flooding.

Fortunately, months like December 2006 remain the exception. But those events got many people thinking. Many people fixed their properties to better withstand stormwater surfeits. At the academic and government levels, studies were conducted, recommendations were made, policies were proposed, workshops were and are being held ….

Now, eight years on, Victoria is the region’s first municipality to uncouple fees paid to maintain stormwater infrastructure from property taxes. The city intends to use the utility to fund the renewal of its own century-old stormwater system.

As reported in these pages and online, Victoria property owners can obtain discounts against the utility if they install features such as rain barrels, rain gardens or permeable paving. Rainwater-management features like these slow the flow of stormwater and reduce the spikes in water levels rushing into the city’s storm drains.

Even during extreme-rain periods like December 2006, rain barrels, rain gardens and bioswales throughout a city could dampen the initial surge into stormwater drains.

It remains to be seen whether these measures would prevent flooding if rainstorm followed rainstorm followed rainstorm, without time between for overflowing rain gardens, swales and saturated ground to drain.

If they don’t, we’ll be sure to hear about it.