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Pumping Blind

Experts say we're recklessly draining BC's groundwater, heedless of global warming.

By Chris Wood 24 Aug 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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One out of four rely on wells.

[Editor's note: "Rough Weather Ahead," Chris Wood's series on B.C. water and what we can expect from global warming, is funded by a Tyee Investigative Reporting Fellowship. Today we publish the fourth of his reports, with one more to appear next Thursday. To learn more about Wood, his series and Tyee fellowships, go here.]

Imagine you're taking a drive in the desert. It's been a while since you topped up the gas tank, but you start out anyway. You leave the last gas station behind and carry on into the wilderness, motoring down the open highway at 100 km/h without a care. Now imagine one more detail: your car doesn't have a gas gauge.

That, in essence, is what one British Columbian in four is doing with their drinking water. A quarter of us, many in rural areas but many more in the suburbs of the Lower Mainland, on Vancouver Island, in the Okanagan and elsewhere, depend on wells for tap water. Business and industries in those areas do the same. With each passing year, we're pumping more from the buried lakes and slow-moving underground streams known as aquifers. In effect, we're motoring down the highway, pushing the pedal ever closer to the metal, with no clear idea how fast we're draining the tank, how much it still holds, or when we may suddenly find ourselves running on empty.

Compounding this folly is that groundwater represents more than simply an alternative to our increasingly stretched and uncertain sources of surface water. Wisely managed, British Columbia's numerous accessible aquifers could help solve the most pressing water problem we face as our climate changes: how to smooth out the imbalance between when water comes to us from the sky and when we need it most for growing crops, watering lawns and hydrating sweaty bodies.

Global warming whipsaw

In previous instalments of this series, I reported how climate change is producing paradoxical impacts on British Columbia's water supply. On average, we're getting more water -- two to four per cent more each decade. That water, however, arrives mainly in winter and increasingly as rain rather than snow. Unlike snow, which melts slowly over weeks to keep streams full well into early summer, winter rain runs directly off hills into creeks, rivers and the sea. Existing reservoirs are able to capture and store only so much of it.

Our situation is not unique. Places like India, China and the U.S. southwest face the same problem. All of us, the journal Nature reported last November, "are headed for a water-supply crisis. Time is running out."

At the same time, populations in the Fraser Valley, Interior and Vancouver Island are forecast to grow by at least one-third, and in some places by twice that, by 2020. More people, plus a thirstier environment, puts further strain on reservoir managers' ability to keep both taps and watercourses flowing from one rainy season to the next. The same factors also step up the demand placed on wells.

If only a relative handful of rural homes relied on wells, that might be a small problem. In fact, many of British Columbia's fastest-growing municipalities also draw some or all of their water from underground. Among them: Chilliwack, Mission, Langley Township, South Surrey, White Rock, Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton and, on Vancouver Island, Duncan as well as most of the rest of the Cowichan Valley. "As municipalities that have a groundwater dependence grow," says Gwyn Graham, provincial groundwater specialist for the Lower Mainland, "I'm seeing an increase in well water use."

No limits, few measures

Exactly how much water are we sucking out of the ground each year? "That's a very good question," Gwyn says. "I don't know." Nor do provincial record-keepers know how many wells have been punched in B.C., or where. Until two years ago, there was no requirement even to register a newly drilled hole.

There is still no limit on how much water someone can pump (although rules do require the very largest users to report what they take). Unlike water in rivers or lakes, groundwater is free to anyone who can reach it. "If you want to pull out a couple of thousand cubic meters a day from a river, you need a license, and you'll pay some rate depending on use," Gwyn explains. "That doesn't apply to groundwater. [And] because it's groundwater, we don't charge for it. A farmer that wants to irrigate fields or a municipality that wants to supply urban areas can take as much as they want without worrying about the cost." The same laissez-faire attitude applies to industry.

That's a powerful motivator to keep on pumping as long as possible. In the Township of Langley, for instance, where about half of residents depend on municipal wells and half draw from the regional water system, "We pay much less for our [ground] water than we do for GVRD water," says water resources and environment manager Brad Badelt. "It's a real economic incentive for us to keep relying on ground water."

How long that can go on is anyone's guess. The water level in Langley's wells has been dropping recently. The province has only recently undertaken -- and has not yet completed -- an inventory of aquifers in the Fraser River basin. Of 153 identified aquifers, 132 are being tapped for drinking water. Nine of these are classified as both "highly developed" and "highly vulnerable" to contamination. The number of "boil water" advisories issued -- a telling indicator of declining water quality -- has doubled since 1995.

Mysterious sources

What the provincial inventory has not examined, however, are the critical questions of where groundwater comes from -- and how quickly it is replaced.

Aquifers come in a variety of forms and kinds. One of the two main kinds contains locked-in stores of ancient, so-called "fossil" water, often left over from past ice ages; the famous Ogallala aquifer that runs beneath the American High Plains from Texas to the Dakotas is one of these. In general, these aquifers refill very slowly, if at all. Once their water is pumped out, the "tank" is empty. Another kind of aquifer is known as "open." As the name suggests, these are accessible to water trickling down from the surface. This kind can be refilled -- or "recharged" in hydrology lingo.

Most of British Columbia's groundwater is of the second type. This is basically good news. In principle it means that water pumped out in summer can be replaced with winter rainfall and melting snow in spring.

But there are some significant catches. One is that where development has replaced absorbent forest and fields with hard pavement and buildings, a great deal of rainwater never gets the chance to "infiltrate" into the ground; instead, storm drains direct it straight into rivers and back to the sea.

Another is that no one really knows how fast our heavily developed aquifers recharge. In effect, we may be guzzling the water in our "tank" much faster than we're allowing it to refill.

Cycle of water

According to experts, there's yet a third critical gap in the way we've been thinking about groundwater. "Most people don't realize that surface water and ground water are linked," explains Diana Allen, a leading hydrologist on the faculty at Simon Fraser University. "What you do to one impacts the other." Water that falls on the earth's surface, that is, is the same water that infiltrates beneath it to recharge aquifers. Meanwhile, brimming aquifers keep many streams and lakes topped up when the rain stops falling. "If water levels in the aquifer are lowered due to withdrawals, then you're threatening the ecosystem, you're threatening fish habitat."

The SFU hydrologist worries that water planners too often overlook this connection. In particular, Diana says: "I'm very concerned for the Okanagan. They're encountering huge population growth and surface water licences are fully allocated. They're turning to ground water." Yet, the most exhaustive forecast* to date of the Okanagan's future water supply, "didn't allow for water that infiltrates into the ground."

"Now you toss in the wild card, which is climate change," she adds. More intense winter rainstorms and longer, drier summers may not balance each other out. "There's a rate at which the ground can absorb water. If there's too much rain, the top layer of soil gets saturated and the rain just runs off. [With climate change] there's more rain falling, but less of it is getting into the ground. You're not recharging the aquifer."

More rain, less soakage?

B.C. is getting more rain that it used to. How much of that soaks into the ground depends on local soil and terrain features. In Diana's research on two B.C. aquifers, evidence emerged that in the Grand Forks area more water would reach underground aquifers, while less infiltrated beneath Abbotsford. "There will be winners and losers," is how she put it.

Which communities fall into each category should eventually become clearer. Research is underway to fill many of the gaps in our knowledge -- especially in the Okanagan, where water demand is colliding with supply limits sooner than elsewhere in the province. But a thorough understanding of British Columbia's groundwater may be as much as a decade away.

In Langley Township, meanwhile, Brad Badelt is working with outside consultants to complete the first municipal water plan that takes full account of what's under, as well as on, the surface -- and how the two are connected. The same municipality is leading in another way. Just east of 200 Street, a new subdivision visible from the Trans-Canada Highway may be a model for how we solve one of our most pressing climate challenges.

The problem is easily stated: how to store a little more of the extra rain that's falling to get us through longer, drier summers and quench the thirst of growing populations. One option is to expand existing reservoirs by raising the dams that contain them. Another is to create new storage reservoirs in valleys not yet dammed. Either choice means flooding more land and wildlife habitat -- a controversial prospect certain to spark intense resistance from environmentalists and First Nations.

Topping up the tank

Langley is testing a third choice: turn natural aquifers into underground reservoirs by directing rainwater collected from rooftops into wells that deliver rather than withdraw water. The idea of such active recharge is hardly new; it's been practiced for years in drier parts of the world like California, Arizona, India and the mid-east. But the Yorkson Village development is the first to pioneer the idea in British Columbia, possibly in all of Canada. Its 85 homes have a number of eco-friendly features that qualify them for the Canadian Home Builders Association's "Built Green" standard. Most of those are designed to reduce the environmental impact of construction and lower the homes' overall energy use. But one feature not included in that standard may have a greater long-term significance. When it rains, water that runs off the homes' roofs (shingled in non-toxic material) will drain through sand filters on each building lot to a neighbourhood holding tank. Once the development is completed (the delay is to allow dust kicked up by construction to settle), that water will be directed down a "recharge" well into the aquifer 100 feet underground.

The idea is still an experiment. "We'll watch it for the next five or so years, and see how it compares to some of our other sites where we haven't done it," Brad told me when I visited Yorkson Village. If everything works as expected, and the rain captured from these homes helps stem the aquifer's decline, the idea may be adopted into a future revision of the Township's subdivision bylaw.

In this corner of the Lower Mainland then, winter rain may soon help to top up the water "tank" without the need to drown any more valleys. It's one hopeful sign that British Columbians' disregard for the water we take so easily for granted -- until it runs out -- may be changing. There are others. I'll have more on them next Thursday in my final report in this series.

* "Expanding the Dialogue on Climate Change and Water Management in the Okanagan Basin, British Columbia" is available online (requires scrolling down). An updated study by the same researchers is complete, but was not released by the time this story was filed, pending translation of the executive summary into French, as federal policy requires.

Veteran journalist Chris Wood is recipient of a Tyee Fellowship for Investigative Reporting, which provided the funds necessary to do the in-depth reporting in this series. Tyee Fellowships for Investigative and Solutions-oriented Reporting are supported by donations from Tyee readers and intended to support independent journalism to educate the public about critical issues facing British Columbia. If you are interested in making a tax-deductible donation, please go here. If you are interested in applying for a fellowship, please go here.

Wood is working on a book, Dry Spring: When the Water Runs Out, forthcoming from Raincoast Books.

 [Tyee]

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