Shorter showers, letting it mellow if it’s yellow and allowing lawns and gardens to parch were key themes of last week’s water town hall meeting in Tofino.
The district has implemented Stage 3 water restrictions after experiencing record-low rainfall and residents packed into council chambers on July 18 with overflow seating in the community theatre next door and about 200 people watching through a live video feed online.
Mayor Dan Law opened the meeting by explaining that all of B.C. is experiencing a severe drought.
“It’s the most severe drought on record. The entire Vancouver Island is now in Stage 5 drought and there are only five stages,” he said. “It’s also the worst wildfire season ever recorded.”
He said all mayors throughout the province were called to a meeting with B.C.’s emergency management minister Bowinn Ma and said Ma had “implored all elected officials to go back to their communities and urge residents to conserve water.”
He added that while the drought is province wide, “it’s acute” in Tofino.
He said that through May - July the district gets an average of 275 millimetres of rain, but has had less than 20 millimetres this year.
“It hasn’t rained in two and a half months…This has not happened before in recorded history to put it in context. This is not a joke. This is the real deal. We are subsisting off fog and dew and we have perhaps one of the best fog and dew catchment systems around and that is Meares Island,” he said. “The only reason it’s catching that dew is that there is a mature forest over there still. We have TFN (Tlao-qui-aht First Nation) to thank. Almost 40 years ago they refused to log that watershed and thank God they did.”
He recalled the summer of 2006 when Tofino ran out of water, but noted much has changed since then to prevent the same situation.
“The reason we have water flowing at all in this drought is a testament to the vision, planning and community buy-in over the last 10-12 years,” he said. “We have more flow, more storage, more treatment, we’ve got more professionals working and more monitoring. We have a vastly different system and that is because the community, staff and councils have repeatedly invested. We have water.”
He noted the district’s ongoing 20 per cent water reduction challenge and concluded his opening remarks with a rallying cry to the community to work together and buy into communal strength.
“It’s going to take a community effort. Everybody has to buy in. Everybody has to realize where we’re at and how we’re going to meet the challenge. If we can do that as a community, just like we did with the pandemic, just like we did with the Hwy. 4 closures, just like we did with every crisis that I have seen for the last 20- odd years, the community comes together as one community and we get together and we solve the problem. That’s what we need to do and we can do it.”
The district’s director of infrastructure and public works Aaron Rodgers then explained the Stage 3 restrictions currently in place and repeatedly assured that there is time to keep the community away from the precipice of shutting down, like it did in 2006.
“In many ways, Stage 3 water restrictions are akin to a tsunami warning siren. The siren alerts you to an approaching danger, allowing you time to evacuate to an area of safety. Stage 3 is the alert that we need to move now as a community…to avoid further water restrictions and to avoid potential serious impacts to our community,” he said.
He showed a slide that compared the rainfall this year to 2022’s, explaining that Tofino received 257 millimetres of rain in May and 208 millimetres in June last year, but just 4.2 millimetres of rain in May and 10.2 millimetres in June this year. Despite that significant reduction in rainfall, Rodgers said the water “system is in balance.”
“We have a lot of water right now,” he said. “We’re nowhere close to Stage 4. The system is performing well and it’s performing well in a very challenging year.”
He noted the district implemented Stage 3 on July 10 and the daily water consumption average has “dropped significantly” since then.
“Way to go, all of you,” he said.
He noted that the district’s largest water user is the salmon farming company Cermaq Canada, followed by the town’s larger resorts, adding that Cermaq would be stopping production on July 27. He added that if everybody follows the 20 per cent reduction challenge, the district could easily meet its water target after Cermaq shuts down.
He said 44 per cent of the district’s residential water use is for toilets and showers.
“If we can reduce how many times we’re flushing the toilet, or how long our showers are, that may be all we need to do,” he said.
He added that he lived in Tofino in 2006, though was not working for the district at the time.
“What we’re doing tonight and what we’ve been doing over the last week is to avoid at all costs what happened in 2006 and that begins with education and communication and a conversation. We have the ability not to do 2006 again and I just want to make sure that that’s clear to everybody,” he said.
He said the district is currently working on a water master plan, which is expected to be finalized in December, including a water system emergency plan.
“That’s something that we may have wished we had today, but something that we are actively working on with our consultants,” he said.
He said factors that would trigger Stage 4 water restrictions have not been met and are not currently expected to be met.
“We are preparing for Stage 4. We don’t expect to go there, but we don’t want to be caught flat footed like in 2006 with no plan,” he said.
He said if Stage 4 was called, the province would be notified and water consumption would be more intensely monitored, the emergency operations centre could be activated and some business activities could be suspended.
“The most important thing to stress is that residents are the priority if the situation becomes emergent,” he said. “Our priority as a municipality is to make sure that you, our residents, are the priority, that’s to make sure we have enough drinking and sanitary water and that we have water for fire protection.”
In terms of bylaw enforcement, fines for using water contrary to Stage 3 restrictions are up to $500 and in Stage 4 the fines go up to $1,000.
Rodgers suggested no fines had been dished out so far.
“The district of Tofino’s water system is robust, but we are in the middle of a historic drought,” he said. “This is a challenge that we can overcome, but we have to do it now….There are no silver bullets. We all must find a way to reduce water usage given our unique situations and it still may not be enough because of the historic drought. This is a community challenge. We need your help getting the message out.”
A video of the town hall and more information about how to conserve water can be found at talktofino.ca/water-conservation.