One Cool Island: Rainwater harvesting rebate program expands

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By ANDREA PALFRAMAN

TRANSITION SALT SPRING 

It may feel hard to celebrate this long, rainy spring, but people who have recently installed water harvesting systems have been enjoying a windfall of “blue gold.” 

With $10,000 allocated by the Capital Regional District for incentives and another $10,000 on the way to welcome the Southern Gulf Islands into the program, Transition Salt Spring’s (TSS) Rainwater Harvesting Rebate Program has been a successful kick-start to a Gulf Islands-wide campaign to turn our abundance of rain into a resource during increasingly severe summer droughts. Over 100 people on a waiting list for the next phase of the program will soon receive notifications from TSS about their chance to get in on the rebate. 

Says TSS Climate Action Coach Rob Lowrie, “Our organization does what municipalities are doing in other parts of the province. To fill local gaps, TSS has partnered with the CRD to make accessing rebates like this easy.” 

According to Lowrie, most participants are installing 1,040-US-gallon tanks, enjoying a $500 rebate per tank. Many islanders, like John Metzger, own multiple tanks. 

“Thanks to Transition, I got an incentive to add to our rainwater system, without which we would not have gone ahead this year,” says Metzger.  “With longer, drier summers, those already using tanks are finding they need to add onto their systems to make up for the lower availability of water,” says Metzger.  

“I’m really impressed with people’s innovation,” says Lowrie. “For instance, orchardist Harry Burton is watering his substantial apple orchard with a series of four tanks — the last of which Burton installed through the TSS program. 

“He collects from his house roof, directs water to one of four tanks, then sends it to various parts of his farm via a pump and irrigation system. All of that allows him to keep growing his amazing heirloom apples in a changing climate.”

Rainwater rebate is just the beginning  

Currently, the rainwater harvesting program is open only to people reliant on well-water, supporting catchment systems designed to water gardens, lawns, and — in some cases — flush toilets.

“We focused the rebate on well owners,” says Gary Holman, Salt Spring’s CRD electoral area director, “because they can’t access the kind of funding assistance that water districts can access, such as through infrastructure or gas tax funding.”

But TSS wants to expand the program to all water districts on Salt Spring and the other islands. “We’d be happy to partner with our local water districts like we’ve done with the CRD,” says Bryan Young, Transition Salt Spring’s board chair. “Transition could deliver this program inexpensively using incentive funding from the water districts. That’d be a win-win for everyone.”

Says Lowrie, “Community groundwater system users and private wells are not going to be as heavily impacted by a water shortage as lake-dependent users.” 

To make an island-wide water conservation strategy really work, says Lowrie, “We want the people who are using the lake to water their lawns and gardens to switch to irrigating with rainwater, so we can relieve pressure on the island reservoirs during the summer when we triple our use — during the driest time when the system can’t handle it.”

With the latest round of rainwater harvesting rebates, TSS calculates that 25,000 gallons of ground water a year will be conserved during the islands’ hottest months.

“If we had assured funding for the Rainwater Harvesting Rebate Program that extended to lake and reservoir users” says Lowrie, “water districts might be able to measure reductions in water use on the lakes. This could open up licensing capacity for a limited amount of workforce housing, tiny homes or housing with low ecological footprints. To do this, they first need to see evidence of lower withdrawals during the dry times.”

“Another strategic way to promote responsible water use for lake users is to introduce water metering and ‘progressive’ rate structures,” says Holman. 

The idea behind these systems is simple: the more water a household uses, the higher the per-litre cost rises. Making people aware of the cost of their consumption is a powerful conservation incentive, while rates can be adjusted in tandem with water availability.

Lowrie agrees. “People will use what they want to use until and unless the districts charge higher rates.”

“Almost all CRD water districts have very progressive rate structures; their use of water per household is much lower than in the Greater Victoria area,” Lowrie continues. “A study done for the Salt Spring Island Water Protection Alliance (SSIWPA) indicated that NSSWD’s rate structure is not as progressive as many other local water districts. NSSWD is reviewing their rate structure and TSS is hopeful that it will take into account the powerful evidence that progressive rate systems motivate behaviour change and, ultimately, water conservation.”

Other possibilities include incentivizing the use of water-saving appliances, like low-flow toilets. CRD director Gary Holman says, “Such incentives might be a possibility on Salt Spring Island, offered through water districts, or possibly the same CRD stormwater service which is funding the water storage rebates through SSIWPA and Transition Salt Spring.” 

Salt Spring has vast water conservation potential

Another powerful but often overlooked way to conserve water is to switch from irrigating with sprinklers to vastly more efficient drip-irrigation systems.

Having installed a non-potable rainwater harvesting 3,400-gallon system with help from Transition’s Rainwater Rebate, Shannon Cowan is now planning an irrigation system that will switch out a sprinkler system for a much more efficient dripline system.

Says Cowan, “My berries are my babies: I’ve been spraying them with water from a hose for six years. Now I have laid out a half inch line connected to a pump suspended in my large rainwater cistern. Where I have many berries in the bed, I weave dripline irrigation through the bed to water everything. For blueberries, I’ve got plugs feeding water off the half-inch line, directly to each plant.”

“I’m excited about being able to mulch these plants, knowing that not only will they do well in the drought, but I’ll have more berries!”

Cowan isn’t just a berry grower. She coordinates the Salt Spring Island Water Protection Alliance. “SSWIPA is really supportive of the TSS-CRD partnership for rainwater storage rebates. We set the goal to reach 3 million gallons of rainwater storage by 2026. Five months in, we’re getting several people contacting us every month letting us know how much new storage they’ve added.”

SSWIPA is looking forward to hosting a rainwater tour event in the fall of 2022, showcasing some of the different systems people have set up. The tour hosts become helpful advisors to folks who want to do their own systems afterwards. 

“If you want to be a rainwater tour host and showcase your system, get in touch,” says Cowan.

Lowrie thinks that, while conversations about extending the program are essential, the main thing is to simply get started.

“The important thing here is to keep an eye on our collective impact. When you think about climate change, you may feel like installing a home rainwater harvesting system is a drop in the bucket. But as this program shows, when we join forces and take action, together, we can have a big impact.”

To find out more about the rainwater rebate, managed by TSS, with incentive funding from the Capital Regional District, go to transitionsaltspring.com.  

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 member and volunteer writer for Transition Salt Spring, and director of communications at Raven Trust. To support Transition’s climate action work in our community, go to https://transitionsaltspring.com.  

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