The Sunshine Coast’s Water Crisis Isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon

With an extreme water shortage comes many challenges. For instance, what to do about it.

This year, the Sunshine Coast almost ran out of water. It’s always been an issue, but we’re getting to the point where it’s no longer about watering lawns or plants—it’s impacting some of the sectors that the Coast relies upon.

Those who live in the area are more than familiar with the dry summers and the seemingly inevitable Stage 4 water restrictions that prohibit any outdoor tap use. Although Stage 4 is not an uncommon resort, 2021 proved to be exceptionally long, with restrictions severely affecting businesses—regardless of zoning or commercial farm status.

There was a temporary exception granted for farmers, but only for two weeks, which demonstrates the severity of the drought that the Sunshine Coast was facing. There were meetings to seriously consider a moratorium on new development and a halt to tourism, both of which are crucial to the Coast’s economy and to its flourishing.

The water crisis isn’t going away anytime soon. But it’s a polarizing issue, perhaps exacerbated by the advancing effects of climate change.

Duncan, a concerned resident who preferred not to give his last name, just experienced his third summer on the Sunshine Coast. “A lot of people come to the coast to live these more natural kinds of lifestyles and maybe support themselves,” he says. “A big part for me was that the Coast is a little bit of a step back in time to where kids play in the street, and people have gardens, and grow stuff, and you can look at insects—my kid loves bees.”

Duncan acknowledges that this isn’t necessarily the most crucial effect of the water crisis, but it’s worth considering that people spend their time and hard-earned money to invest in gardens. “I’m not a particularly wealthy person, I don’t have tons of money, but I do like to spend it to make my garden nice. And then, when you can’t water it, all that hard earned money just disappears, because you can’t look after it. And I find that really sad and a very frustrating part of living on the Coast.”

Residents, businesses and local governments alike are frustrated to no end as discussions turn into debates over water meters, real estate developments and new water sources, while the one thing everyone agrees upon stays constant—the Coast is running out of water and there will be serious repercussions if it continues. It’s no longer about whether residents can let the lawn “go golden,” it’s about food production, tourism and so much more.

Throughout the summer, many other emergency measures were also considered, such as a moratorium on new development. Remko Rosenboom, general manager of infrastructure for the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD), noted that, although the rate of development is relatively high, this measure would only apply to new applications—not those that were already in process or previously granted. “Not saying that it wouldn’t be an effective measure, but it wouldn’t affect the situation we’re currently in,” he said. This motion ended up being voted down at the emergency meeting called on Aug. 17, 2021, with only one director out of seven in favour.

Another measure that could be enacted, should the SCRD call a state of emergency, is the limiting of travel to the Sunshine Coast—essentially stopping tourism—among other extreme measures, according to a news release from Aug. 23. Rosenboom mentioned that based on their current predictions, “we activated our emergency operations centre because we’re forecasting that if the current drought continues, we might be in an emergency situation in the fall.”

Rosenboom attributes this shortage of supply during dry summers and the increasing amount of drought to climate change, causing it to be drier earlier and longer. “I think we were all expecting some impacts of climate change, but nobody thought that those effects would happen this quickly—it’s a phenomenon that we see all around the world where forest fires and flooding are happening now while they were initially predicted to happen in 2030 or 2040,” he says “A decade ago, measures were not taken—there were plans, but they were never activated to increase our supply at that point in time.”

So, what solutions are there? As frustration among the residents mounts, so does the length of time in which little has really been done to help the water shortages. The Church Road Well Field is estimated to go online in 2022, when the SCRD will borrow up to $9 million dollars over a 30-year term. This is meant to alleviate the situation, but the SCRD is still waiting for their license to be granted by the province.

Jurek Janota-Bzowski, a professional engineer with 50 years of experience dealing with water systems, provided his perspective. “Water is an equation, and the equation essentially is the balance between supply and demand,” he says, describing the Sunshine Coast as an upper-balance situation in which the demand isn’t being met by the supply, causing us to focus on the latter.

How can we supply more water? Janota-Bzowski lists the numerous ways to do so: wells, more surface sources, building a higher dam at Chapman LakeClowhom Lake, desalination plants, an engineered lake, etc. “One of my favourites is towing icebergs from the North Pole, that’s another supply,” he mentioned tongue-in-cheek.

The one thing all the plans have in common: “they’re all extremely expensive—I’m talking anywhere from $50 to $100 million, maybe more,” he says. “The thing is, that’s where people are focused, on the supply side.”

Other sources of water

Another issue with finding other sources is that all the water needs to be treated. The current surface water source, Chapman Lake, has a specific treatment process that deals primarily with colour, tannins (carbon compounds from dead trees or leaves), parasites and viruses. Janota-Bzowski explains the other sources might be a totally different treatment process. “Just because we have well water, if it hasn’t been tested, it cannot be treated through our current treatment plant because the treatments required are different.” When taking water from other sources, such as groundwater, the distinct chemistry means that it’ll need treating for iron, magnesium, manganese, and arsenic instead.

Al Jenkins, former Chair of the West Sechelt Community Association and an advocate for the use of Clowhom Lake to solve the water shortage, notes that the fresh mountain water from Clowhom is almost identical chemically to the water the area gets from the Chapman watershed and would result in almost no change to the treatment process if we were to use the current treatment plants.

Alternate systems, such as water from SakinawRuby or the other lakes on the Coast have also been considered, but the water from Sakinaw and Ruby are both stagnant, and don’t have the turnover Clowhom does. Jenkins also mentions that Edwards Lake has a large surface area but is very shallow, recharges slowly and has no runoff. “Edwards in itself is kind of a poor supplier of water to us,” he says, “but right now I think that they’re drawing off of it for obvious reasons.”

Clowhom is also 42 times larger than the Chapman watershed as it has a huge catchment area, and it’s rated by BC Hydro as the fastest recharging facility in the province. There are currently no restrictions on extracting water from Clowhom.

Janota-Bzowski and Jenkins worked together to figure out that water could be carried from Clowhom, which is about 55 metres above sea level, down to Sechelt through an inverted syphon and a one metre tube—which ends up being a lot of water. “What Jurek suggests is that we could just be putting pumps into that waterhead and taking out the water that we need, as we need it,” says Jenkins.

The Church Road Well Field, once active, is said to be able to help alleviate the current need for water. The SCRD also plans to drill two more wells in the upcoming years and connect them to the Chapman system (which supports 85 percent of SCRD water users), hoping to have them online in 2024-2025. “If we have those online, and we have the meters installed—which will happen in 2022 in the Sechelt area—there is not a lot of immediate need for additional water supplies or sources anymore,” said Rosenboom. “Then, based on our projections of climate change and growth on the community, we should be fine until at least 2030.” He mentioned that the current SCRD water projects are projected to meet the demands of the community, even in extreme drought situations until 2025. “So, while we recognize that there are ideas and other options to further expand the water supply, these initiatives are underway, so let’s first focus on them to get them online as soon as possible, and then see what else is needed to plan for the future.”

Rosenboom explained that the SCRD might look at smaller projects in the meantime but that any major investments, such as Clowhom, won’t be considered until further in the future. He also noted that, “we actually have budget from the board to explore those options, but the implementation, construction and development of them is not anticipated until closer to 2030.”

Something to consider, however, is that while the Church Road project has been waiting for approval for a number of years, larger projects like Clowhom need to be considered far in advance of their need. “Other people have thought of this, I’m not the first one, I just have to say that I think it’s time to have a closer look at Clowhom,” says Jenkins. 

sunshine coast water crisis

Metered expectations

Aside from finding more water, the SCRD will also be implementing water meters to properties sometime in the next couple years—this is about understanding and managing the demand side of the water equation. Duncan, and many other Sunshine Coast residents are hesitant since “it doesn’t actually offer any more water to anyone, so, it could be something that money is spent on and doesn’t actually provide any solution.”

However, as Duncan acknowledges, meters might be useful for tracking usage and to find leaks or where we’re losing water in the system. Although he believes that we should have enough water to be able to grow veggies and keep nice gardens, he does agree that “everyone should be somewhat conscious of how much water they’re using—whether it’s just through everyday use, lawns, or what have you,” and does have a little bit of a problem with the idea of unlimited water.

While Janota-Bzowski acknowledges that water meters are a huge bone of contention lately, “as an engineer, to me it’s just another tool, in the same way a screwdriver is a tool,” he says. “Meters are important, despite the fact that there’s still tremendous outcry against them, because a lot of people don’t see meters as a tool, but as big brother spying on them.” BC Hydro already monitors and charges for electricity in a similar way that meters would likely be used to monitor and charge for water usage.

The regional district received a grant for 50 percent of the water meter installation, but that means that only 50 percent of the population have meters and the SCRD needed to borrow money to install the rest of them. “We live and die by data, if we don’t have data, we have nothing to base decisions on,” he says, wishing that all of the meters could be installed and coded so that data can be collected and analyzed to know exactly where all the water goes. “Again, that goes back to data, if you don’t know where the water goes, you can’t formulate solutions—once we have the data and we know where water is going, then we know what to do about it.”

With 6,200 out of 11,000 properties metered, the SCRD statistics on leaks show that 858 properties were notified 2020 and 1,031 properties so far in 2021. An average of two leaks have been discovered per day. In June 2021, 400 notifications were sent out, and by mid-July 38 per cent of those were resolved.

Janota-Bzowski mentioned that anywhere from 25 to 30 per cent leakage is what he’d predict for the current systems, as the pipe networks are old and leakage through the same pipe only increases exponentially through time. “If you manage to fix 50 percent of the leakage out there, what you do is you buy yourself a tremendous amount of time from other major capital expenditures, like expanding the water treatment plant, the existing treatment plant is pretty much at capacity.”

This is water has already been through treatment, chlorination, and a network of pipes. “They found a leak which is equivalent to 300,000 litres a day,” said Janota-Bzowski. “They say it’s equivalent to 288 houses.”

“We have had people that have had wetlands in the back of their backyard and mosquito issues for years, until they got a meter installed and they figured out that it was actually caused by a leak,” noted Rosenboom, although he acknowledged that not all cases were as serious and could sometimes just be small leaks, like a dripping toilet.

It was found that most people across metered residential properties last year use about 250-600 litres a day, but that 9 percent of the properties made up 38 per cent of the total residential water use (not including commercial users). The Coast Reporter article about this reads: “Area F director Mark Hiltz asked if letters are being sent to the properties ‘to let them know how out of line they are.’ Rosenboom said there are currently no dedicated efforts, citing privacy issues, but he will check with staff to see how they can make the people at those properties aware of their above average usage.” Mia Edbrooke, Manager of Strategic Initiatives for the SCRD explained that “about half of those properties [in the 9%] had leaks.”

“Often, it’s directed at people,” explains Janota-Bzowski, “if the average is 600 litres per day, well then ‘you’ have to do something to reduce your 600 litres per day down to another number. But in actual fact, it may have nothing to do with the homeowner, and it may have everything to do with leakage or agricultural use or industrial use.” His push for the installation of water meters is to see exactly where the water is going to ensure that the right areas are being targeted. “Water is really quite straightforward, because the thing is that everyone supports their own idea and each one has a different agenda, and that’s always an issue.”

The need for action

Whatever one’s stance on water meters, Clowhom Lake, or other initiatives that are being undertaken, it’s clear that it’s time to do something. “All these things are things that today we are free to do, but if we don’t do it, tomorrow we will be required to do,” states Janota-Bzowski. “We’ll have mandates, and we’ll have water police, and we’ll have people who ration water to you. I can see that in the future, so while we have a choice, we should be focussing on reducing our water use.”

It’s October, and while we haven’t run out of water yet, we’re still in Stage 1, and remained in Stage 4 through part of September, despite the Labour Day weekend rain. All might seem well now, but as soon as summer rolls around next year, we’ll be in a similar predicament—possibly one exacerbated by climate change.

As Duncan points out, this recent change to Stage 1 seems to show that we have a capacity problem instead of a water supply problem. “In four days, there was enough rain to restore us from Stage 4 to Stage 1,” he says. “I kind of feel like that moots the whole argument of, ‘we just don’t have enough water’—if anything, it’s the one thing we have too much of.”

Farms were able to make it through thanks to resourceful community members and businesses that stepped up and helped by providing storage containers or wastewater. But, we barely made it and we’re not yet in the clear.

“There just needs to be some way of capturing this water and storing it, because we basically have rain for six months of the year, at least,” says Duncan. “And if you we can just capture more of it and hold it then that seems to be the way to go.” This points to solutions like Clowhom Lake, with large catchments and ample storage.

Although an advocate for Clowhom Lake, Jenkins mentions that really, “I just want the problem solved, maybe not for me, but maybe for my children or my grandchildren living within a few blocks of me.”

Duncan has similar thoughts: All I know is that I just want to have a nice place to hang out with my kid, grow some stuff and learn some things.”

Since the SCRD has been approved to install the other half of the water meters, that much seems inevitable.

“I think [Jenkins’ proposal for Clowhom Lake] is a great solution too, but it’s on the supply side, and to me, the focus should be on the demand side,” says Janota-Bzowski, referring to water meters first and then seeing what else is out there. “Once you’ve dealt with the demand side, now you’ve got time to breathe and start thinking about securing water for the future, where would we get it?”

Stage 4 has been declared regularly over the past few summers. Whether we run out next year or in 10 to 20 as the SCRD predicts, what happens then?