Rainwater capture systems pose their own health hazards. (Black Press Media)

No easy answers to plug hole in south Island’s safe water supply

Rainwater capture and other bandaid solutions are not the solution

Water is a basic requirement of life, but in the District of Sooke and the surrounding Juan de Fuca Electoral Area, the supply of water can be problematic.

In the third and final installment of our water series, we look at the current situation, enduring problems facing many in the region, and what the options are for the future.

RELATED: Part 1 of the series

RELATED: Part 2 of the series

The water supply enjoyed by Sooke Region residents much of Greater Victoria is one of the best sources of safe drinking water in the world, says Ted Robbins, the general manager of the integrated water systems for the Capital Regional District.

“We take a great deal of pride in the water provided through the Juan de Fuca Water Distribution system,” Robbins said.

“We’ve protected the watershed for the Sooke Lake Reservoir and the quality of the water we provide is second to none.”

The reservoir, in use since 1915, also promises a secure capacity with a total volume of 160.32 million cubic metres.

A secondary source, the Goldstream Water Supply Area adds another 10 million cubic metres to that capacity and the Japan Gulch Water Disinfection Facility ensures that the water is exceptional as well.

And, although it is anticipated that even with the rapid growth of communities in the area, the current water supply will be adequate for several more decades, the CRD is already planning ahead and the Leech Water Supply Area is already being prepared to augment the current systems.

“Our water supply is safe and secure. We’re very proud of it,” Robbins said.

And while that is all well and good for those area residents who are connected to that water supply, in the first two parts of this series, we’ve established that those who are not on the system face some very serious challenges when it comes to water.

Some communities, generally rural in nature, continue to be “water orphans” — effectively denied access to that safe and secure system.

“I don’t think that the future of water supply will lie in the Juan de Fuca Water Distribution System,” Mike Hicks, the director for the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area, said.

“I’ve been working for many years to expand that system, but there are some limitations that we have to deal with.”

RELATED: New Regional Growth Strategy

It’s been a long and contentious battle for Hicks who, in 2017, had to fight for a seat at the table when the CRD’s Regional Growth Strategy went to mediation after it appeared the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area would not have the same access to piped water afforded to other municipalities.

One of the reasons for that approach was based on the perception that a supply of water would lead to urban sprawl into historically rural areas.

It’s a claim with which both Hicks and Sooke council disagreed and they made the point local official community plans protected those areas from over development. When the dust settled, the new CRD Regional Growth Strategy did allow for piping water to areas, but the cost of that piping had to be borne by the residents of the serviced area.

That, of course, had not been the case for the other municipalities that got water lines when the system was first installed.

The net result has been that only a few areas have benefited from connecting to the water supply.

The 450 residents serviced by the Kemp Lake Waterworks District, for example, have recently chosen to abandon their substandard system and make that connection.

RELATED: Kemp Lake grant denied

For other’s though, that connection may never come.

“We’re just three kilometres from the end of the line, but extending it to where I live would cost in the millions and all of that cost would have to be shared by a handful of people in this area. It’s just not going to happen,” said Amanda Booth, who lives up Otter Point Road on Young Lake Road and relies on a well for her water.

“There are neighbours here who are hauling in water and others who are drawing water from DeMamiel Creek. We’ve had garbage dumped into the creek and other issues that really doesn’t make it a safe water source.”

The same is true of the residents who rely on the Wilderness Water System and the Misty Ridge Water Co., both located in the Mount Matheson area. Those systems are subject to frequent boil water advisories and the Misty Ridge Water Co. has had substandard water for more than two years.

“I would really like to see the water line extended to the Mount Matheson folks, but it’s up to them if they want to absorb the cost,” Hicks said.

In Shirley, the Sheringham Water Works continues to fret over what effect increased housing will have on their water source.

The situation has raised some fundamental questions.

The first is why the CRD now requires the full cost of water expansion to be borne by those new customers that would benefit from the expansion.

“That wasn’t the case when the pipes first went in, but the people of Saanich or Oak Bay have no appetite to contribute to expanding water service today,” Robbins said.

The second question is is why residential home builders are regularly granted permits to build without a safe, reliable water supply to service the homes they build.

“There are no regulations that say that a person can’t build without a water supply,” Hicks said.

He noted since bulk water services are available, anyone can install storage tanks and haul in water for their home. That, he maintained, is a water supply.

“We’re establishing a second bulk water location on Otter Point Road that will make that service more practical,” Hicks said.

But in the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area and Sooke, there is only one bulk water hauler available, and a representative of the South Island Water Company admits that the business has it’s own challenges.

“During the summer months we do a pretty good business, but in the winter when it’s raining, some people have wells that they can use so the number of deliveries we make is a lot lower,” a company representative said.

“It may be that, at some time in the future, if that company goes out of business, we might think about getting a truck and taking over the deliveries. It’s something we’d have to watch.”

And hauling water and having an independent system on one’s property isn’t without it’s challenges.

“My system cost me more than $10,000 and now I’m looking at capturing rainwater for some of my needs to cut down on the cost of water,” Keith Clarke, a Mount Matheson resident, said.

The systems can, in fact, cost much more than that, and one of the drawbacks inherant to the systems is that during power outages, the pumps that pressurize the system stop working, cutting off the flow of water to the taps.

“Honestly, I think that the future of water supply for a lot of the people who don’t have a well or piped water may be rainwater capture,” Hicks said.

“A good system can use out rainy season over the winter and store enough water for the entire year.”

That raises a third concern of whether rainwater capture is a good alternative.

The systems can be expensive to install and the water supply provided by rainwater collection comes with it’s own problems.

RELATED: Rainwater capture

Most of those systems rely on a steel or other non-porous roof construction that funnels rain water into large storage containers.

And, while rainwater is relatively free from impurities except those picked up by rain from the atmosphere, the quality of rainwater may deteriorate during harvesting, storage and household use.

Wind-blown dirt, leaves, faecal droppings from birds and animals, insects and contaminated litter on the catchment areas can be sources of contamination of rainwater, leading to health risks from the consumption of contaminated water from storage tanks.

Poor hygiene in storing water in and abstracting water from tanks or at the point of use can also represent a health concern.

Well designed rainwater harvesting systems with clean catchments and storage tanks supported by good hygiene at point of use can offer drinking-water with very low health risk, whereas a poorly designed and managed system can pose high health risks.

That raises another concern.

Currently, there are no statutory regulations governing the design of rainwater capture systems and no mechanism that requires testing of water by health authorities.

The same is true of individual wells on residential properties, although that situation changes as soon as two or more residences share a well, at which point it becomes a water system and is subject to Island Health inspections and regulations.

“We know that we’re going to have to keep looking at the regulations around water. We have people struggling with water now and we’ll have more in the future as more homes are built in areas not serviced by the main water supply. We have to make sure that water is considered a basic right and that everyone has access to safe water, one way or the other,” Hicks said.

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Contamination in rainwater capture systems can endanger health. (Black Press Media)

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