The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Canada needs more independent media. And independent media needs you.

Did you know that most news organizations in Canada are owned by just a handful of companies? And that these companies have been shutting down newsrooms and laying off reporters continually over the past few decades?

Fact-based, credible journalism is essential to our democracy. Unlike many other newsrooms across the country, The Tyee’s independent newsroom is stable and growing.

How are we able to do this? The Tyee Builder program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip into our editorial budget so that we can keep doing what we do best: fact-based, in-depth reporting on issues that matter to our readers. No paywall. No junk. Just good journalism.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to be Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

Anger Wells Up in Dry Tofino

Residents and businesses both frustrated by inaction that led to crisis.

By Jacqueline Windh 1 Sep 2006 |

Jacqueline Windh completed her B.Sc. (Honours) in Geology at McGill University in 1987, and began her Ph.D. in Geology at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia) the same year. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Western Australia in 1992. Windh then worked in the mining industry for nearly two decades, a field she left in order to try to have a more positive influence on the planet as a writer and photographer.

She has published four books (one of which is a Canadian bestseller), and has written articles for The Tyee, The Guardian and elsewhere. Her work mainly addresses the themes that are most important to her: sciences, scientific literacy, the environment, and indigenous social issues and rights. Windh is currently broadening her writing to address these same themes through fiction and writing for the big screen.

image atom
Sign of crisis in Tofino store. Photo Jacqueline Windh.

In Tofino, where the resident population of 1,800 regularly swells by 15,000 tourists on a weekend summer day, life is often organized chaos. But the usual chaos was no match for what happened on Thursday, August 31.

Mayor John Fraser presided over an emergency council meeting, the day before business closures were to take effect as a result of a severe water shortage, in a town that gets four metres of rain each year. Victoria businessman Chris LeFevre strode past the dozens of residents and media queued up at the council chambers door as if he owned the place -- which in fact he nearly does. His holdings include the Middle Beach Lodge, Weigh West Resort, and Bella Pacifica Campground.

LeFevre called the mayor’s decision to shut businesses down on one of the busiest weekends of the year premature, and challenged the mayor for leadership and solutions. “What it costs to truck the water in is but a peppercorn compared to the amount that the businesses could lose... not to mention the trickle-down effect throughout town,” he said. “I have tanker trucks ready right now that can start to pump into the municipal system. I’ll put $50,000 on the table right now to set the trucking in full motion.”

He estimated that he could provide Tofino with 200,000 gallons per day -- enough, along with the meager water supply still available from the reservoirs on Meares Island, to keep the town in action (albeit with severe usage restrictions). LeFevre figures that his money alone would keep Tofino in water for up to two weeks. His offer provided some perspective on just how much individual businesses do stand to lose if the town does remain “closed.”

Problem pits residents against development

The nearby village of Ucluelet offered to provide the municipality of Tofino with up to 200,000 gallons of water from its system, which draws on a large aquifer and was upgraded eight years ago. Part of the $8 million to fund that upgrade came from the sale of some municipally owned waterfront property. Tofino residents, struggling with water shortages for several summers now, have been pushing their council for higher levies on new developments to fund upgrades to their water infrastructure for years. Two small storage upgrades are expected to be online in 2007.

At the emergency meeting, council voted to try LeFevre’s plan. By Thursday evening, health authority approval and water-truck certifications were obtained. Technical issues involved in pumping water under pressure from the trucks through the town’s fire hydrants into the municipal system were addressed. By Thursday night two truckloads of water had been successfully injected into Tofino’s system. Things were looking good for LeFevre’s grand plan.

But meanwhile back in town, lodging and restaurant owners (most of whom had been denied access to the council meeting) were left even more confused than before. “So are we still to close tomorrow, or does this mean we can stay open now?” asked Maré Dewar, who had just given layoff notices to 65 staff at her Schooner and Upstairs restaurants. Many businesses had made their own arrangements, to purchase holding tanks and just truck in their own water. Their guests were asking “Are you open or not?” The only way to give a firm answer was to take matters into their own hands. So when they were informed late Thursday that anyone who does so will be disconnected from the municipal system, they were not amused.

Olivia Mae, owner of the Clayoquot Orca Resort Lodge, after hurried research committed $10,000 to get a tank installed so she could start to bring in her own water. “How can they have the audacity?” she exclaims. “They say that if we bring water in we are going to contaminate their system. We’re already on a boil-water advisory!” Now she is one of several businesses stuck with an expensive new tank that she is not permitted to use.

The Wickaninnish Inn’s managing director Charles McDiarmid echoed the thoughts of many business owners across town. He questioned the sudden escalation to extreme Level 5 water restrictions, just five days after Level 4 restrictions were announced on August 24. “Two and a half days notice to shut down,” he said. “That’s ridiculous!”

While local residents complain that restrictions that kept them from watering gardens all summer aren’t applied to businesses, many business owners just wish they had been informed of the problem much earlier. Olivia Mae says that it would have been no problem to ask guests for their cooperation, if only the businesses had known. “We could have saved huge amounts of water this summer. People don’t need sheets and towels washed every single day. If council had just started this in the spring, or even in June, if they had called a meeting of resort owners, we could have done something about it back then.”

How a wet place ran dry

How could one of the wettest places in Canada have run out of water? How could all lodging and food service businesses be ordered to close days before one of the busiest weekends of the year? Notwithstanding the proposed emergency plan, tourists don’t know whether they are coming or going, and resort owners aren’t clear what they should do next.

Rainy Tofino has a long history of water shortages. The tiny town is nestled at the tip of a narrow peninsula. With no significant catchment area or reservoir on the peninsula, the town’s water is actually collected from streams on Meares Island and piped across a saltwater channel into town. The reservoirs on Meares Island are small, especially relative to the town’s growing demand as the tourism economy continues to boom. Many residents have actually been expecting this “crisis” for years.

In addition to water supply issues that result mainly from the low capacity of current reservoir, there are serious problems related to the demand for water. Tofino tourism has boomed over the last decade, and the town now gets about one million visitors a year. During that decade, the visitor profile has changed. Visitors were once hard-core wilderness backpackers and family campers. Now many come for luxury resorts. Double-sized jacuzzi bathtubs in guestrooms, hot tubs on decks overlooking the ocean, laundry from daily sheet and towel changes, and even dog-washing so the pet can come back into the hotel after a romp on the beach have contributed to exploding demand.

Tofino typically has Level 2 water restrictions over most of any particular summer -- which limit watering of gardens to twice a week but don’t restrict other water uses. In recent summers, restrictions have progressed to Levels 3 or 4. At Level 4, all watering of gardens, and other outdoor uses of water such as hosing down vehicles or sidewalks, are prohibited -- but there is no specific mention of restricting any commercial water use.

This year, Tofino’s total rainfall since May has been about half of the summer average. Furthermore, our usual August fog (the month is often referred to locally as “Fogust”), which contributes some moisture as well as significantly decreases evaporation in our catchment areas and reservoirs, was virtually non-existent. So it was not much of a surprise to anyone in town when the alert for Level 4 restrictions was sent out on August 24.

But the news of Level 5 restrictions a mere five days later was a shock to residents and businesses alike. As well, there was a boil-water advisory for the south end of town, and the mayor directed accommodations and restaurants to close by the weekend.

Businesses claim ‘no warning’

Some businesses immediately called guests to cancel reservations; others planned to stay open with their own water. The news “Tofino is closed!” blared across the country. Within 24 hours of the Level 5 notice, the only people flooding into town were the media.

At the swank Wickaninnish Inn, McDiarmid’s initial plan was to comply with the mayor’s request, and then to research whether trucking in water was feasible. Other major resorts such as the Long Beach Lodge and Middle Beach Lodge decided to remain open by immediately arranging to truck in water.

Most restaurants, on the other hand, could not use that option because the Vancouver Island Health Authority would not likely approve their water sources for food service. Tofino councillor Al Anderson is also proprieter of Beaches Grocery, one of the south-end business that is under the boil-water restrictions. “We’ve been ordered by VIHA to shut down the food-service part of the business,” he says. “I guess we’ll be mopping the floors with Perrier.”

Tofino, already a divided community, is even more divided this weekend. The local residents feel they are disrespected so businesses can come first. Shirley Langer, former mayor of Belleville Ontario and a Tofino resident since 1995, does not think that this is right. “So I should have to not water my garden so that some visitor can have a hot tub? What is community?”

But the business owners are not at all happy either. Maureen Fraser, owner of the Common Loaf Bakery, repeats the sentiments of many other local entrepreneurs. “Businesses, once we are brought on side, can of course do major things to conserve water. But there was no specific engagement with us, even when we hit Level 4.” She points out that once local business owners were involved in the process -- only this past Tuesday -- all sorts of ideas and plans came out of it. She is concerned that while residents are blaming businesses, businesses themselves had no information and therefore little opportunity to act.

In a press conference today, Tofino mayor John Fraser said that his long-term management strategy was to “hope for rain.” For most Tofino residents, business-owner or not, this is not enough. Tofino residents and council have been aware of the worsening water problem for a decade – “worsening” because, even without the effects of global warming, new tourist and residential developments have continued to be approved for years, while issues of how to provide water for a growing population on a skinny little peninsula have not been addressed.

“We’re a community of 1,800, dealing with the issues of a community of 15,000,” says Michael Tilitzky, who is a town councillor as well as manager of the Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce. “We just don’t have the resources or the infrastructure to deal with it. It’s not only a water crisis, it’s a staffing crisis,” he points out, noting that three of Tofino’s top four staff administrative positions are currently vacant.

LeFevre’s grand plan is able to supplement the town supply with only a quarter of the water he had promised. However, the restrictions and the mass exodus of tourists have cut consumption by half. If the town can keep to that level, Fraser has said he will keep the taps turned on and businesses may remain open.

But the dust won’t settle until it rains. And Tofino will be looking for a strategy more proactive than “hoping for rain.” Langer says a community should begin by defining the carrying capacity of the town. “Instead, we have development deciding what we should be able to carry, and then we have to go out and look for the supply.”

For many Tofino residents, that is just all backwards.

Jacqueline Windh is a Tofino writer and photographer, and author of The Wild Edge: Clayoquot, Long Beach and Barkley Sound (Harbour Publishing, 2006).

Related links and Tyee stories: For Chris Wood’s just-concluded Tyee series on our province’s widespread looming water problems, click here. For a look at Whistler citizens’ rejection of a P3 sewage system, click here. For a look at low river flows’ effects on salmon, click here. For Environment Canada’s Tofino weather forecast, click here.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: What Is One Art or Design Skill You Wish to Learn?

Take this week's poll