Monday, February 26, 2024
February 26, 2024

Viewpoint: What is rural sprawl?


Rural sprawl in the Gulf Islands is being wrongly used to justify higher densities. 

There is no universally accepted definition, but rural sprawl usually refers to houses on lots of one to five acres and commercial strips outside of town centres. Under that definition, much of the Gulf Islands could qualify. 

The problem is misapplying urban sprawl solutions to rural environments. A response to urban sprawl has been to redevelop and further densify city centres. This makes sense because urban centres have the infrastructure to support a high population density, such as paved roads, and community water and sewage systems. The high cost of operating such systems is spread over many ratepayers, thereby making them affordable. 

But applying the same principle to the Trust Area won’t work. Few islands have surface water sources or any sewage treatment plants. Even Ganges, with its community water and sewage systems, has a limited water supply and a sewage treatment plant that will eventually reach capacity. 

On other Gulf Islands, new high-density residential developments are being proposed and approved with groundwater and on-site septic fields. This is very risky because, under these circumstances, effluent from a septic field can pollute surrounding wells. Some neighbours to these types of projects are already plagued with wells that fail in the summer. Now they fear polluted water as well, and may have to install expensive treatment systems or rely on water delivery. 

This has not been an issue on Salt Spring yet because high-density developments are located in Ganges where there is a sewage treatment plant. But groundwater contamination on Gabriola, for example, is a warning about what can happen when densities are increased without city services. 

There are some people on Salt Spring advocating for high-density development in rural areas outside of Ganges to make housing more affordable. This is a dangerous, slippery slope. 

As it is we have septic systems on some one-acre parcels. Lots of this size are allowed because they have piped water from someplace else. But it’s not wise to risk polluting groundwater just because homes in the area are not using it. Septic effluent can travel to the ocean where high coliform levels cause shellfish harvesting closures, as in Fulford Harbour.

Yes, there are high-tech sewage treatment systems available, but they are costly, require proper operation and maintenance, and homeowners must adhere to warnings to shut down when there is a problem. Even normal community water treatment systems can be very expensive to build and maintain for a small number of users. 

Putting high-density development dependent on wells and septic systems in rural areas is a bad idea. Densities should be kept low for public-health reasons and because the rural character is one of the Gulf Islands’ unique amenities that require protection. The next time you hear the term “rural sprawl,” think about how it is being used and for what purpose.

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  1. We need to stop using septic systems as props for straw man arguments. Modern, properly maintained residential systems are a very low threat to groundwater. Microbes can clean the wastewater very effectively, rendering the water safe within a couple of meters of the field.

  2. Let us mourn another tree felled for Maxine’s latest water worry fest….WE HAVE WATER STORAGE ISSUES…FULL STOP. Let’s just get rid of septic systems and recycle all water, let’s make all toilets incinolets or composting toilets. So many green solutions are available.We can change, we have to 😉

  3. Rainwater harvesting and collection, incinerator toilets, etc. There is no justification for only relying on septic fields or wells. Sounds like the author is a “pull up the drawbridge and keep other people off the island” type, and I find that somewhat reprehensible.

  4. Thank you Maxine for this well written and researched article. Yes indeed we are suffering on Gabriola. The water trucks are delivering tons of water every day and this to many people who once had productive wells and a reliable fresh water supply. A supply that could service all household and garden needs, even throughout the driest months of the summer. The concern here is not only a significant drop in water levels all year round in most wells on the island but also the supply of potable water due to sewage and salination contamination. The increased population, over-pumping of fissures and aquifers, too many build-outs per acre of land is creating a water resource crisis and has pushed Gabriola over the tipping point of environmental health. The solution to build more houses or multi housing in high density areas is very naive and short sighted. Anyone recommending increasing densities as a solution obviously does not know or care about the current climate crisis. Until we have resolutions to resolve the issues of current water shortages, contamination of groundwater, destruction of groundwater recharge areas, and so on, more and more island residents will lose their water.

  5. This article reeks of a very biased stance towards a very specific outcome for our island community. For a “viewpoint” article, the author is making blatant statements that can be easily discredited. This one track focus on septic and ground water being our only options that you are propagating in our community is counter productive and disrespects the alternatives that are easily within reach for many of us.

    While I recognize the delicate balance of our ecosystem here, the water scarcity and waste dilemma argument is getting old and must be challenged through more locally funded experimental designs of closed loop water systems, while moving away from water flush toilets and septic fields as we have known. There are so many eco-alternative systems that are not high tech or expensive (as you suggest) that can be implemented today to manage so many of our local water and waste issues.

    Maxine, my challenge to you is to open your mind to these alternatives and open your heart to all your fellow islanders who are choosing to call Salt Spring home as you do. If you can’t, then at least allow for more constructive, creative and inclusive community “viewpoints” to be shared as we navigate our community growth.

  6. I completely agree with the writer of this article. The Gulf Islands have limited carrying capacity. The Gulf Islands have a unique protected status for a reason, as imperfect as many of us feel these protections have been and are, and simply cannot support unlimited growth. While we need curbs on density in other areas. i.e. subdivisions and very likely consideration of down-zoning as well, high-density developments are indeed urban not rural solutions. The capacity of any one location to support the required water draw and septic risk to other wells is simply unsupportable in most instances, especially as we all begin to experience the impacts of climate change. Those who promote ever more density for any reason are in denial of the reality of our fragile island environments, just as climate change deniers are. High-tech solutions may be available but they are often extremely costly and difficult to maintain – much more expensive and challenging in a large development than a single-family home that chooses such an option. Rainwater catchment can help with certain water requirements – some aspects of irrigation, toilet flushing etc. – but will never provide a yearlong sufficient supply even for irrigation without massive and costly tank farms. Yes, different land use decisions should have been made in the past but the past is impervious to change; we need to be extremely cognizant of the impact to the environment going forward and make our decisions accordingly, as difficult as some of those decisions may be.

  7. The writer may suffer from an acute case of baby boomer cognitive dissonance.

    Old arguments, little understanding of modern technology, fear-based ideology, and so much more.

    Too bad the author has become known as a thorn in the side of anyone trying to do anything constructive to some of the most endangered species in this island – working-class humans.

    Sorry, that boat has sailed and our generation is not going to pander any longer.


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