Water…What You Don’t See When You’re Not Looking…

Water drop

Water…What You Don’t See When You’re Not Looking…

I attended the Water Preservation Society’s forum last year and left rather disappointed.

While there was some good information presented regarding rainwater catchment, and pleasantly surprising data on our virtual ,state-of-the-art Ganges sewer treatment plant, much of everything else ranked somewhere between being loose or vacant on facts all the way to being misleading and erroneous.

Allow me to wade into the waters and clarify some of what I am referring to.

I’m going to start at the end of the meeting and work my way back, because the response to a question which was asked by an audience member…self-professed relative newcomer to the island (5 years),,,exemplified the general mood which was created by the forum – one of scarcity.

He was concerned about the carrying capacity of the island – how much water do we have, and how many people could Salt Spring actually support with that water? And, more importantly, should we be looking to make changes to the OCP and land use bylaws to further restrict development?

That question was met with a general supportive nod from the majority of people in attendance, which, given the general impression they had just been given – that the island’s water resources are extremely limited – is somewhat understandable…

However, let’s take a ook at a realistic, mathematical answer to the technical question – how many people could be supported on Salt Spring with our water resources?


Salt Spring Island is 182.7 square kilometers, which makes it almost exactly ¼ the size of Singapore.

Singapore is a water scarce country.  With a total land area of 718 sq  km  and  a  population  of  5.5  million,  the  country  does  not  have  natural lakes, large rivers or substantial groundwater resources for fresh water supply.

Utilizing local rainfall collection, Singapore has built 17 reservoirs with the completion of two new reservoirs in 2011. It has also expanded the catchment areas to cover two-thirds of its total land area.

As to new water sources, Singapore has built five NEWater plants to treat used water into high-purity water. At present, NEWater or reclaimed water can meet up to 30% of Singapore’s current water consumption.

Apart from reclaimed water, Singapore has introduced desalinated water with the construction of two desalination plants that can currently meet up to 25% of the water consumption in Singapore.

Looking ahead, it is forecast that Singapore’s daily water consumption will almost double by 2060 when the population has risen to 10 million people. As such, the Singapore government plans to more than triple the NEWater capacity and ramp up desalination in the years ahead, with NEWater and desalinated water meeting up to, respectively, 55% and 25%, of Singapore’s water consumption in 2060.

So, currently Singapore provides enough water by catchment and recycling for 1,650,000 people, and desalination for another 1,375,000 for a total of 3,025,000 people.

By 2060 Singapore’s plan is to desalinate enough water for about 2.5 million people.

Singapore gets about twice as much rainfall as Salt Spring – 2.34 metres vs 1 metre.

Now, for fun, lets do some comparisons. Since we have as much sea water around us as Singapore, and, ¼ the land mass, we could, by 2060, using the identical technology, “technically” provide 2,500,000 people with water by desalination.

For argument’s sake, let’s cut the rainfall catchment and reuse supply in half (for rainfall), and then ¼ it (for land mass difference). That would be another 1,650,000 x .5 x .25 = 206,250 people.

Salt Spring current population is just over 10,000.

Is anyone seeing the absurdity of the gentleman’s question and/or the audience’s concerns?

When it comes to Chicken Little water scarcity concerns, the only thing that’s really falling from the sky here is rain.

There is, without a doubt, a cabal of drawbridge mentality people on the island, who are so completely and utterly opposed to any further development of any other property on the island, other than their own, that they would rather bury their heads in the sand instead of look at realistic alternatives.

They believe that if they can manage to scare enough people into believing there is a scarcity of water then our OCP and Land Use Bylaws should be revamped to downzone undeveloped properties, and restrict existing properties from utilizing their allowable uses.

In 2008, during the OCP review, Trustee Peter Lamb, (now former Water Council Coordinator, and current Secretary) put forth exactly that proposition at a public meeting at Artspring. I rose to my feet and said, “Excuse me, but, I can go down to the CRD building inspection office today and apply for a building permit to construct a 1500 sf home, and, if I have an engineered rainwater catchment design, the CRD will issue the building permit. So, unless you are aware of any place on Salt Spring where it doesn’t rain, then there is nowhere on the island that has a water supply problem.”  My rationale fell on deaf ears then, since, and, it is clearly falling on deaf ears now, unless you’re listening at the moment.

Rainwater Catchment Reality

When it comes to rainwater catchment the reality is this – 1500 sf x 39 inches (rainfall) = 4,875 cubic feet of water x 6.22 gallons per cubic foot = 30,322 gallons per year potential rainwater catchment. Divide that by 365 days and you have the grand sum of 85 gallons per day, a little less than what Island Health recommends for two persons (50 gallons/day per person).

The CRD also requires 12,000 gallons of storage to get you through the drier summer months.

Compare those amounts to the 550 gallons/day that NSSWD has “allotted,” through policy, to each property within the District. The only shortage of water on this island is the drought in the minds of those who don’t understand the math.

So, first, lets get over the question of whether there is enough water for our projected, puny by comparison, 17,000 people at full build out under the current OCP. If someone from Singapore was sitting in the audience at the meeting they would either have been howling with laughter at the local paranoia, or dumbfounded at the displayed lack of knowledge of current technology.


While it was billed as one of the four major topics of  the night, the subject of desalination was glossed over, as it was in 2008 when I raised it as a potential water supply, as being too expensive to even talk about. NSSWD Manager, Ron Stepaniuk, stated he was “not an expert, but the small amount I do know is that capital and operating costs are expensive.”

This was in spite of ANY figures given as to costs.

So ended the evening’s discussion on desalination…unbelievable.

The approximate current cost per gallon for desalination is $0.80 per cubic metre. To put that into perspective, an equivalent year’s supply of rainwater catchment (30,322 gallons) would cost you just $91.20 (Math = 30,322 gallons = 114 cubic metres x $0.80 per cubic metre = $91.20), or, $0.25 a day….now, compare that cost to your last water bill.

Yes there is a capital cost associated with it. So, let’s look at an estimate for entirely replacing the water used from St. Mary annually – 1,202,000 cubic metres per year = 317,534,806 gallons per year or 869,958 gallons per day.

The estimated cost for a 1 million gallon per day plant would be approximately $12 million US, not much more than the current estimate for raising the weir ($2-4 million) and the proposed water treatment plant ($8-9 million).

Cost of Desalination Plants

At a cost per gallon less than what is currently being charged ratepayers, how is this considered “too expensive” to be a long term alternative?

And, if we were going to go with my idea of establishing a desalination plant say in Ganges, and pressure feed the treated water into the system, the cost would (a) be relatively insignificant, (b) only have to be utilized on a need basis during the summer months, which reduces the energy consumption, and (c) provide an emergency back up in a catastrophic event in one of the lakes, such as a prolonged cyanobacteria bloom in one of the two major lakes or, heaven forbid, a major forest fire


Let’s move onto groundwater supply for just a moment. Using the required 85 gallons/day figure from rainwater catchment, we can calculate the equivalency in gallons per minute that would be required from a well to get a building permit (with 12,000 gallons of storage)…85 gallons divided by 24 hours divided by 60 minutes = 0.059 gallons per minute…a little more than 1/20th of a gallon a minute. Thus, if you have a well that has a sustainable yield of just 1 gallon per minute, your well produces the equivalent annual water supply of 17 homes using rainwater catchment.

There are huge areas on the island that produce an average of 5 gallons per minute, or, enough for 85 homes from one well. In some areas, like the base of Mt. Bruce, wells range from 15 to 50 gpm.

We can look to Cedar Lane or Scott Point Waterworks, to see whether such a system would work in practice….it is my understanding they limit their users to 100 gallons per day, and the users are careful with their water usage…imagine that…being personally responsible for your water use…welcome to the 21st Century.

In July 2001, a report was prepared by professional engineer, Robert Potter, which theorized on the groundwater supply in the Maxwell Lake area and gave recommendations as to how to go about testing the theoretical supply of what would be some of the very best water on the island. The estimated cost for the recommended study? About $100,000 in today’s dollars.

Mr. Potter’s estimate was that 200,000 cubic metres of good quality groundwater could be accessed in the rather small 8 sq km Maxwell area alone. 200,000 cm = 4,000,000 gallons…

What has the NSSWD done to follow up on the study’s recommendations? NADA, nothing, zilch…

This is in spite of Mr. Stepaniuk’s recent (July 2015) warning to the Board that if there is ever a fire in the Lake Maxwell watershed the water may be undrinkable for 5 years. If I understand the consequences correctly, currently, there is no alternative, backup supply in that event. Please correct me if I’m sounding irrational here, but wouldn’t it be prudent to explore the possibility of developing alternative water supplies even as emergency backup in the event of disaster? What am I missing?

And yet, Mr. Stepaniuk stated that his knowledge of groundwater quantities is basically limited to discussions he has had with people on the island, and that “there are serious limitations in a number of areas on the island.”

With all due respect, that is a very simplistic view of the vast resources of groundwater that have been identified, and which are publicly available for viewing online through the BC Water Resources Atlas.

The Potter Report found the average groundwater yield, per 1,000 feet of drilled wells, in four areas on Salt Spring (Lees Hill, Stewart Road, Reginald Hill and Mt.Belcher Heights) was over 17 gallons per minute. 17 x 60 x 24 = 25,000+ gallons per day, divided by 50 gallons per day per person = enough water for 500 people for every 1,000 feet of well drilled.

It once again begs the question – are those in charge of our water systems looking to find real world solutions, or just scare us into believing there aren’t any?

What is the agenda here? Who is driving the policies? What is the end game? IMO, the answers, in order, are very simply – Stop development, extreme environmentalists, and stopping development.

Lake levels

I was appalled at the lack of a historical understanding presented regarding the ebb and flow of our annual rainfall as it relates to periods of drought. Likewise, the spectre of climate change was raised as being the cause of the current “drought.”

Give me a break, please….the graphs below, going back to 1900, from across Canada, indicate the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). The PDSI is the amount of moisture occurring in soil. Do you see any generalized trend towards drought in any of the graphs? I sure don’t.

Palmer Drought Severity Index

These graphs are taken from a peer reviewed study conducted in 2012 which states, for southern BC, there is:

 “a significant increasing trend, which appears to be driven by a significant increase in annual precipitation. There is a nonsignificant increasing trend in the May–August temperature, but potential evapotranspiration shows no trend at all. Compared to the first three modes, moisture anomalies in this region generally exhibited less year-to-year persistence and have lower amplitudes during the first half of the study period.”

In other words, in southern BC, contrary to the climate change crowd, (a) we are getting more, not less precipitation, (b) there is a slight, non-significant increase in summer temperature,  (c) there is no trend in increase of potential evaporation, and (d) there is MORE year to year persistence now than there was in the first half of the 20th Century…all of which is good news.

However, what was presented at the forum was a scary looking graph of the last 3 years, of St. Mary Lake levels, as if that was representative of the past or the future.

While it was clear the levels of the lake were lower in the summer of 2015 than 2016, someone in the audience pointed out that by the end of 2015 the levels were actually higher than in late 2014. The explanation? Well, it rained more in November that year….as if that was some kind of extraordinary event….rain in November on Salt Spring…who’d have thunk it, as Alfred Neumann would have said….

In previous posts I have written extensively on the St. Mary Lake water levels, and the negative impact the 2006 removal of the beaver dam and placement of the weir has had on summer lake levels, as graphically shown here:

Lake Levels Before and After

If you haven’t already, you can read more about that here https://islandstrust.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/water-water-everywhere/

What is/was appalling is that a professional limited his view to a couple of years rather than showing us there is no actual trend. The fact that 97% (114/117) of Global Climate Models have been shown (see – 114 out of 117 Models Wrong ) to drastically overestimate projected future temperature as compared to real world observations tends to go unreported to, and/or unnoticed by, the general public.

And yet, the results of those inaccurate models have been used as the basis to predict local disaster in the NSSWD Hydrology study released last year.

GIGO is the alpha and omega of such predictions.

Ganges Sewer Water

Someone asked, repeatedly, if the panel could inform him as to how many gallons a day of virtually clean water is being flushed into Ganges Harbour…not one of the panelists had an answer….I blurted out “About 113,000 gallons.”

How is that I knew the answer (based on reading Ganges Sewer Commission minutes) but no one on the expert panel knew, including the Manager of NSSWD and two of the other panelists who were there to speak on the subject?

Who also knew that the quality of the plant’s treated water was so clean? The maximum for suspended solids (TDS) for streams bearing fish is 25 parts per million (ppm). Ganges Sewer treated water is 1 ppm…and no, that is not a typo….

Biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) is how much oxygen does water use to decompose organics. The allowable limit for BOD is 25 ppm…clean surface water would be 5 ppm or less….the Ganges plant’s water is just 3 ppm, about the same as St. Mary Lake.

Fecal coliform limit is 1,000 per 100 millilitres of water. The limit if you want to use a stream or lake for a water source is 100 per 100 ml of water. The Ganges effluent is about 25…

Thus, if the remainder of the water was treated to remove phosphorus, iron, copper, zinc, pharmaceuticals, etc. (easily done with reverse osmosis), the water would be drinkable.

About 113,000 gallons a day of it….@ 50 gpd per person, enough to water 2,260 people each and every day.

Also, it was brought out that all that is required to actually start using the water is an application from someone…

I was once again rather gobsmacked given the plant is run by the CRD, which is also in charge of Centennial Park, one block away.

This is what Centennial Park looks like today – IMG_1214.JPG

This, IMO, is a public disgrace. The grass is dead to the point of there being large areas of bare soil exposed. The next rain will turn this into a mud pit. While the question of what should we do to improve the Park is being debated with grandiose/ridiculous schemes being proposed, the idea of installing a simple water line, run from the plant to the Park, is completely overlooked. This ranks right up there at the top, with the unfinished Ganges Boardwalk, on the list of things Salt Spring should be ashamed of.

Septic Solutions

Someone asked about composting toilets, which should have resulted in an extremely interesting solution to water conservation being revealed.

It was stated that composting toilets, like privy pits (outhouse holes in ground, permitted by the health department) are a little used, but allowable use on Salt Spring.

What wasn’t revealed is that if you used a composting toilet or privy pit for eliminating “black water” (septic) and put in a holding tank to capture, treat and then reuse graywater, you wouldn’t need a septic field. I was recently informed by the CRD that as long as you have a service that can pump out a holding tank, you don’t need a septic field to get a building permit. Thus, it would be possible to create a very efficient, closed loop system at a fraction of the cost of installing a septic field.

Storage is one answer

In lieu of a sustainable well, stream or lake supply, storage is the most obvious solution which was virtually ignored as well.

During the fall, winter and early spring periods, millions of gallons of water flow out of the lakes and into the ocean. That same water could easily be stored in storage tanks on individual properties. In other words, turn the tap on during the wet season, fill the tank, and then use it only as needed during the summer months. Combined with a lower, off-season, water rate, individuals could reduce their annual water bills while taking the load off of the system during the summer.

New construction within NSSWD could require large capacity storage tanks to be installed and filled on that basis.

Hot Admission?

Ron Stepaniuk made a statement which indirectly corroborated my previous expose on the implication of the St. Mary Lake aerators with the cyanobacteria outbreak…an admission I have not, to this date, heard before from anyone associated with NSSWD..

The admission was that even a 1 degree Celsius can trigger a bloom….that was the very point I tried to bring up with NSSWD in early 2013, just 6 months before the aerators were turned off forever.

My analysis of the NSSWD temperature data of St. Mary Lake at that time showed up to a 7 degree Celsius increase in the temperature of the lower levels of the lake after the aerators were installed. A quick Google search revealed studies indicating the temperature to algae bloom connection.

However, when I requested more data information from NSSWD I was basically told to FO by one of the Directors, a retired engineer….he “told” me they had “experts” who knew far more than I and had everything under control…..right.

The Next Day, A Journey into the Great Unknown Underworld

I attended the presentation the next day by Diana Allan on the subject of “Estimating Groundwater Recharge to the Gulf Islands: Challenges and Progress.”

With all due respect to Ms. Allan, the title could just have easily have been “After 20 Years of Studying Groundwater Recharge in the Gulf Islands, It’s Still a Hazy Mystery to Us Experts.”

The bottom line of Ms. Allan’s presentation is that there is no known methodology for accurately predicting or calculating groundwater recharge on Salt Spring Island.

The complex and varied geology of the island, which you can view for yourself below makes it virtually impossible to understand what is going on 10 feet below you, let alone 10 feet on either side of you, or, 1,000 feet below.

Cross SectionGeology Map

I found it interesting that one of the attendees delivers water to well owners whose wells have gone dry. His knowledge is directly observational. He is notified when any particular well goes dry, and, when it has recharged to the point of not needing water delivery. Thus, in his day to day life, he tracks the direct connectivity between rainfall and recharge of wells with varied geologies (e.g. shale, sandstone, granite, etc.)…it was clear he investigates the lithology of his customers’ wells….thus he is a great source of practical, real world, local knowledge.

I would love to see an open panel forum on Salt Spring groundwater wells with him, longtime well driller, Albert Kaye and retired engineer Bob Potter sharing their direct experience and knowledge.

During Ms. Allan’s mention of the potential of salt water intrusion into groundwater supplies on the island I leaned over to Driftwood reporter, Sean McIntyre, and told him he should speak to Albert, about the deepest well he ever drilled on the island – it was 825’ and he hit fresh water. However, the most notable part wasn’t the depth of the well, but, where the well is located…not on the top of Mt. Belcher, or Mt. Bruce, but, within 250’ of Long Harbour. The top of the well is at an elevation of about 25’ above sea level, which puts the bottom of the well about 800’ below sea level. Let that sink in a little, because it paints a different picture than what the average person has been led to imagine….

The good news coming out of the presentation is that, similar to what I reported above with respect to rainfall trends, Ms. Allan believes groundwater recharge on Salt Spring will likely remain the same, AND, may actually improve by 2060…something which I’m sure didn’t make the members of the “Scarcity is In Abundance on Salt Spring Sect” sitting in the audience very happy. Good news after all is bad news in some people’s minds.

The talk was very informative, but throughout it reminded me very much of the infamous quote from Donald Rumsfeld “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

On the subject of hydraulic fracking of drinking water wells to increase flow, Ms. Allan did not have a firm opinion. She had proposed a study to drill a second observational well on Ross Road, within 100’ of one of the few existing government observation wells on the island, frack it, and see if there was an effect on the existing well. She said it would be fairly expensive and would need funding to do the study, but that it would be “fun”….that word perhaps comes from the Latin root – fundi, or the plural fundus  – loosely meaning “I/we have an idea, please give me/us money.”

All kidding/sarcasm aside, the absurdity that such a “fracking study” (which ironically would be a good term for it) would provide anything other than just one, particular example of the uncertainty of what may or may not happen below ground was ironically underlined by something Ms. Allan had said, just two minutes before –

With the research that we’ve been doing…its impossible…we’ve gone in and used physics to characterize a particular site and 20 feet away its different.

So, in her own words, the results of a fracking study at one location could just as easily be different than a fracking study conducted 20’ away…such is the nature of these fracking studies.

Ms. Allan closed off her talk by saying it is virtually impossible to inform the general public on the “uncertainty and complexity” of groundwater recharge and said even international experts struggle to inform each other on the subject.

My Conclusions?

Water is abundant on Salt Spring…it is the delivery of piped water which is restricted because of the unwritten, but evidently adopted, policy of overlooking abundance in the face of the drawbridge mentality and  pursuit of preventing development, at all costs…

If, like myself, you are interested in seeking real, long term solutions, you will have to look beyond these well meaning events, and look to the world for the latest in technological innovations which clearly show you can have as much good quality water as you want, when you want it, at a reasonable cost.

The question of whether development pressures will increase as a result is a political question, to be decided and answered by the people we elect to represent us. If you don’t want development, vote for those who are anti-development. If you feel a certain amount of development (e.g. affordable housing, recreational facilities, or commercial accommodation) is acceptable, then vote for those who take a practical approach to maintaining a healthy, vibrant community where real, inter-generational opportunities for a diversity of island residents are possible. …

Currently, this community is about as far from that reality as it can get and headed in the wrong direction…and it is scarcity thinking and its like-minded policies that are driving the proverbial bus towards the cliff…

How to change that direction and thinking is a constant challenge….

Whack a mole

2 Responses to Water…What You Don’t See When You’re Not Looking…

  1. Ray says:

    It would be interesting to know why NSSWD Manager, Ron Stepaniuk, thinks it ok to bring in a moratorium on residential water hook up and at the same time is personally selling lots that have wells. If this is not a conflict of interest and self serving I do not know what would be. This is kind of like the movie Chinatown, flushing water away to pretend there is a shortage but on Salt Spring. Thanks for the post Ray.

  2. Bill says:

    A very interesting article which situates SSI’s water issues in the larger context of other regions with a far more restricted water supply. Thanks for putting this all together.
    Concerning the viability/affordability of desalination as a technology that could be deployed right here on Salt Spring, interested readers should also take a look at what Israel has done in recent years to achieve a net water *surplus* in spite of being located in the Negev desert, one of the driest regions of the world (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/israel-proves-the-desalination-era-is-here/). Quoting from that article:
    “Desalination used to be an expensive energy hog, but the kind of advanced technologies being employed at Sorek have been a game changer. Water produced by desalination costs just a third of what it did in the 1990s. Sorek can produce a thousand liters of drinking water for 58 cents. Israeli households pay about US$30 a month for their water — similar to households in most U.S. cities, and far less than Las Vegas (US$47) or Los Angeles (US$58).”

    In terms future water planning (including emergency water backup) here on the island, it would be appropriate for our community to seriously reconsider desalination as part of a long term strategy. If Israel can achieve water security in the middle of a parched desert, then so can we here on the west coast of Canada with 1 meter of rain per year…

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