‘Not a one-off event’: Drought causing another water crisis on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast

The region has been contending with increasing drought conditions in the past decade, which local government officials say is directly linked to climate change.

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A drinking-water supply shortage reached a new crisis level on the Sunshine Coast this week with the declaration of a state of emergency and the shut off of water to some public facilities such as swimming pools and several water-intensive businesses.

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The region has been contending with increasing drought conditions for the past decade, which local government officials say is directly linked to climate change.

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On Monday, the Sunshine Coast Regional District, the District of Sechelt and the shíshálh Nation declared a state of emergency on the Chapman reservoir system that supplies water to nearly 70 per cent of the population of 32,000 in the region because water has been drawn down so far there is a risk of clean drinking water running out.

The Town of Gibsons is not affected as it is on its own aquifer. Some businesses in the region — including Central Coast Concrete and Swanson’s Concrete — have their own water supply.

There have been several stage-four, or severe, water conservation restrictions put in place since 2015 in the region, including this year, which ban all outdoor watering.

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With the latest state-of-emergency restrictions, local government officials estimate that drinking water may only last until early November without rain.

“This is not a situation that is going away. It is not a one-off event. … We’ve expanded the water system three times in the past 10 years and it is still not sufficient,” said Remko Rosenboom, general manager of infrastructure services for the regional district.

Local governments are also trying to get permission from provincial and federal officials to release less water into Chapman Creek, which protects fish, to increase the water supply for people.

Rosenboom said the drinking water supply shortage is directly attributable to climate change, with increasingly dry summers that are lasting longer. He noted that while the population has increased, individual water use rates are down and overall use is also down.

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The reservoirs are simply not being replenished by rain as they had been in the past, said Rosenboom.

Local governments are building two well systems that will increase water supply, one to be ready soon and another in 2024, as well as putting water meters on households in Sechelt to help converse water and detect leaks that can be huge water wasters, he said.

These initiatives are costing as much as $22 million, a significant financial burden for a region with a small population, noted Rosenboom.

They are applying for a provincial-federal grant to help with the metering program, but had to act fast and could not wait for grants on the well programs, he said.

Other B.C. communities are facing similar challenges as they try to find the billions of dollars needed to adapt to and reduce the consequences of climate change, according to a Postmedia investigative series published earlier this year.

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On the Sunshine Coast, Persephone Brewing has had to close its brewing production, but still has its retail operation open.

Sara Parsley, the company’s chief operations officer, said the region had experienced drought-like conditions in the past, but not this late in the year.

It is clear the existing infrastructure cannot deal with climate change, she said.

“It’s going to take a collective effort. It’s not just local government that’s responsible. It’s going to take business owners and community members and local government, and the provincial and federal government … to address this and to recognize climate change is coming at us faster than we anticipated,” said Parsley.

John Richardson, a University of B.C. professor who studies drought, said the late, dry weather in B.C. is remarkable.

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September was the warmest and driest in the past 130 years of written records, and October is on track to be equally so, said Richardson.

The continuing warm weather also compounds the drought conditions as it increases evaporation, he said.

Richardson noted there are limits to what you can do to increase water supply, as there is limited storage capacity on the coast. And building up capacity to deal with extremes can be costly, he noted.

“You could get to a stage of who gets the water, the humans or the fish?” noted Richardson.

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