One Cool Island: On rain-soaked Salt Spring, every drop is precious

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BY ANDREA PALFRAMAN 

TRANSITION SALT SPRING

On our raincoast island, it can seem like there’s “water, water, everywhere.” In a landscape dotted with lakes and streams and an average 900 mm of rain every year, it might be hard in a soggy January for Salt Springers to relate to calls for water conservation. 

But fast-forward to August. Soils in our forests get bone dry, and leaf litter underfoot sounds more like autumn. Our lakes and streams provide over half of our drinking water, with groundwater and rainwater storage making up the other half. And the recharge of those sources comes entirely from rainfall. Climate forecasts tell us what we know in our bones: that the amount of rain falling in the winter is getting heavier, with more of it running away to the ocean, and our summers are getting hotter and drier.  

The warning signs are clear, and more troubling when you add to that an overall trend that sees our population forecast rising almost 10 per cent by 2030, on top of a typical tourist season which sees our numbers almost double to 20,000.   

The conservation of water is already a habit for many of us. But many of us don’t fully understand where our water comes from or think enough about our role in ensuring an adequate quality water supply for our communities and our ecosystems. Forests, streams, marshes and all the non-human species that populate them also need their share. This not only keeps our island’s ecosystems healthy and beautiful but keeps our communities safer from the ever-increasing risk of forest fires.  

Climate change impacts the water cycle by influencing when, where and how much rain falls. Warming global temperatures cause water to evaporate faster, which leads to higher levels of atmospheric water vapour and more intense and heavy rains.

Climate modelling for our region shows that those increasingly intense winter rains will fall faster than soil, plants and forests can absorb them. This muddy runoff drains into nearby waterways, picking up contaminants like fertilizer on the way. All this ends up in our lakes, estuaries and the ocean, polluting waterways and causing overgrowth of harmful algae. Reliant as we are on lakes for drinking water, worsening algal blooms rob lake systems of purifying sunlight and oxygen and drive up the cost of potable water.

Salt Spring’s newly released Climate Action Plan weaves the links between rainfall, freshwater and forest conservation. While setting out a bold plan to reduce island emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, the plan also lays out a stark warning: the future viability and safety of our island’s drinking water will be under increasing threat if we do not act now to protect ecosystems ahead of increasing drought, higher temperatures and damaging storms. 

Aside from the obvious fire risks from tinder-dry summers on Salt Spring, low-lying Ganges village — portions of which are built over what was once ocean and estuary — faces a future of ocean flooding during king tides in storm season only 80 years from now. Overdrawing well-water and rising oceans also risk saltwater intrusion that would affect not just one well, but all of them within a shared aquifer. 

Anyone who has applied for a building permit lately knows that freshwater scarcity is also constraining development on Salt Spring Island. Since 2014, North Salt Spring Waterworks District has placed a moratorium on new water connections and imposed conservation regulations. Pressures for affordable housing are at an all-time high; these constraints are causing real hardship for families, workers and island businesses. How will we balance these needs? 

Transition Salt Spring, under the “One Cool Island” banner, aims to chart a way forward for inter-agency collaboration to protect water supplies and wildlife, prevent flooding, boost low water levels, improve aquifer recharge rates and enhance water quality. 

We welcome you to take part in two upcoming informative online events — described below — to learn more about the interconnectedness of water, forests, climate and our shared future. 

Water Storage Options for the Gulf Islands

• Sunday, April 18 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Registration by donation at tinyurl.com/collectwaterSSI 

Every year, nearly one cubic meter of rain falls on every square meter of Salt Spring Island. So why do we have a water shortage problem? How and why should we collect and store water?

This live virtual discussion will feature a panel of experienced practitioners involved with different water conservation approaches, collection and storage.

Freshwater Stewardship for Challenging Times

• Wednesday, April 21, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Registration by donation at www.tinyurl.com/SSFreshwater

There’s a lot we can do to reduce fire risks while addressing water quality and supply issues. At this special two-hour event, you will hear about exciting real-world solutions to these big picture problems from:

• Robin Annschild on efforts to restore wetlands at Xwaaqw’um (“Burgoyne Bay”);

• Shannon Cowan and Bryan Young on the most important freshwater recommendations in the Climate Action Plan;

• Julie Pisani and Laura Patrick in a conversation about local government priorities related to freshwater stewardship. 

We encourage you to join us! One Cool Island indeed.

What You Can Do 

• Collecting rainwater is practical on any scale. Take a “virtual rainwater harvesting tour” to see how fellow islanders are storing and using rainwater: visit https://www.ssiwpa.org for a host of other resources on rainwater harvesting. 

• Conserve water at home and in the garden. Use drip irrigation, mulch your garden beds, install low flush or even composting toilets, ultra low flow showerheads and tap aerators to save money, water and electricity. Consider reseeding your lawn with clover and say goodbye to your lawnmower (and sprinkler!). 

• Trees slow water down, allowing it to seep back into aquifers. Practise and promote responsible forestry and land use to maintain creekside vegetation and trees, and favour selective harvesting over clear-cuts to prevent erosion and flooding, especially during extreme weather events. 

• Make the land you steward more climate change resilient. Download two handy graphics we developed for you and the Islands Trust on what we can do on the land we care for to help maintain the health of our freshwater and forest ecosystems. Just go to the Climate Action Plan page at transitionsaltspring.com and look for the link to the “Reducing Risk Infographic.” 

One Cool Island is a regular series produced by Transition Salt Spring on how we can all respond to the climate crisis, together. Andrea Palframan is a TSS director and communications lead. More information: transitionsaltspring.com. 

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