Featured Opinion: Let’s get creative to solve housing and water crises

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BY RHONAN HEITZMANN

The North Salt Spring Waterworks District has released its strategic plan for the next five years and is asking for public feedback.

I have some creative ideas that I hope they will adopt to allow for more affordable housing solutions even while maintaining the moratorium on new hook-ups.

First, I would like to say that it can’t be easy being NSSWD. They have to make hard decisions while facing changing-climate patterns and increasing demand from so many new monster homes, as well as tourism and business growth. I understand that the moratorium on new hook-ups and encouraging conservation is an important part of protecting our precious water resources under their management.

I believe the board and staff mean well and are trying to act within their limited mandate. However, as a housing advocate in a time of such a severe housing crisis, I am dismayed that there is no mention of affordable housing and no effort to find creative solutions to help people create essential housing within the constraints of the imposed moratorium. 

Indeed, as part of their guiding principles they claim:

“Public interest: working in the best interests of the public and stakeholders, both current and future” and “Innovation: seeking informed and creative solutions to difficult problems.”

With adequate rental housing in such short supply, our community is losing valuable assets such as teachers, nurses, carpenters, building inspectors, farmers, entrepreneurs and other essential members of a healthy community. It is difficult to hire people to fill these positions as there is literally nowhere to live, unless you can afford one of the few houses left between $600,000 and a million dollars on the market. It is most definitely in the public interest to find and allow for creative solutions to this critical problem.

Affordable-housing advocates I’ve been working with for the past year have done a lot of thinking about water. Since I also run the Salt Spring Water Company, I guess you could say I’ve got water on my mind most days. Herewith I humbly present a number of solutions the NSSWD could implement, or work with other bodies like the Islands Trust and CRD to make happen:

Distributed storage: The reservoirs of St. Mary and Maxwell lakes are not the only way to store water from our abundant winter precipitation. There is also a concept called distributed storage. This would be to encourage use of storage tanks and ponds throughout the district area. Consider this: If 1,000 buildings each had one 3,000 US-gallon storage tank then that would equal three million US gallons of water that would not be drawn from the surface reservoirs during the dry season (about 10 per cent of metered consumption during peak period of July and August).

As an additional bonus, these storage tanks would refill during the occasional summer rains, thus multiplying their value. NSSWD could encourage private installation of storage tanks via an annual rebate on fees, perhaps in conjunction with incentives from the CRD. Of course these benefits could be multiplied as many property owners might want more than one tank. They gain freedom of use for irrigation, perhaps flushing toilets, etc. Win, win! It’s a lot cheaper than building a $3-million concrete storage tank, which is one of the NSSWD’s proposed ideas.

Let’s take this concept a step further. Legal challenges from not supplying water to some 275 potential new dwellings in the Channel Ridge development loom over the district’s head, frankly providing a disincentive to create solutions. We know that the available supply during the summer months when demand is greatest is a distinct challenge for NSSWD, yet there is spare capacity in the annual volume of their licence. Millions of gallons overflow into the sea every winter. What if a proposal was put to the developer of Channel Ridge to create appropriate affordable housing and the planned little village with some local amenities where storage was built into the footprint of those buildings? This storage could be replenished by NSSWD during the winter months when the lake overflows to the ocean. Supplement this idea with rainwater, ponds for irrigation and potential local groundwater as a backup. The community would gain sustainable housing and NSSWD could be free from a challenging legal situation. Win, win!

Finally, I understand the reluctance to allow for new hook-ups to a housing project even if it is in the public interest due to the constraints of the moratorium. Yet at the same time the aging infrastructure of NSSWD is in desperate need of capital funds, and now loses large percentages of their capacity due to leaks (17 per cent of total withdrawals). Meanwhile, the CRD has a property close to Ganges and plans to build 80 units of affordable housing but lacks the water necessary to proceed. Why can these various levels of government not work together with BC Housing to secure capital funds to fix enough leaks to secure the annual supply needed by the housing project? Win, win, win! I would think that the CRD would be the central player in this case and seek cooperation from NSSWD and BC Housing.

This leads to an important last point. Would it not be in the public interest and the ratepayers’ interests to join forces with the CRD and create an island-wide water authority under the CRD but with express local control of management, decision making, engineering and as much local labour as is feasible? This would open the door for funding options and economies of scale, not to mention integrated island-wide water management, finding solutions for not only surface water but protecting and managing groundwater, and encouraging distributed storage and rainwater harvesting island wide. 

Young working-class families are a species at risk on Salt Spring Island. As a community we should support NSSWD and our various levels of government to create innovative approaches to achieving a sustainable, balanced demographic essential to this healthy community. We should not allow fear of over-population to exaggerate the fear of water scarcity as justification for no new housing options.

Instead we should be embracing new solutions and rejoicing at the natural abundance of our annual meter-deep rainfall, allowing for the kind of sustainable population we want to have settle here, not only the wealthy folks seeking a beautiful place to retire, but also hard-working, creative young families, who embrace sensitive lifestyles, respecting the delicate nature of our wonderful and unique ecosystem.

The writer is a member of the Salt Spring Housing Action Committee.

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