In summer, Vancouver’s Kitsilano Pool is a cool oasis, a light blue lozenge on the edge of the ocean. Swimming in the pool can feel peaceful if you’re there alone, slowly turning laps with the blue sky, the ocean and the downtown skyline all in your field of vision. Or it can feel madcap if you’re there with your kids, playing a game of Marco Polo. For many Vancouverites, it’s just not summer without a dip in Kits Pool.
This is how Sean Healy, former director of aquatics at the Vancouver Park Board, described the saltwater pool in 2012: "The experience for the customer is a near-ethereal experience, almost heaven-like — you plunge into this clean basin.”
In winter, the pool becomes a giant bird bath, a foul but strangely intriguing shade of deep green. And that’s when the damage happened last winter: In November 2021 and then again in January 2022, climate change came for Vancouver’s summer jewel.
Two powerful winter storms, combined with the high winter "king tides," pushed sea water and damaged the seawall that surrounds the pool. The first storm, which started on Nov. 15, was part of the weather system that caused the atmospheric river that dumped down heavy rain and led to catastrophic flooding in many parts of B.C.
A second storm on Jan. 7 didn’t do as much damage, but a high king tide, winds of up to 70 kilometres per hour and a low pressure system led to hours of waves crashing over the seawall and loose driftwood pounding against the concrete and stone walkway that runs from Kitsilano to False Creek to Stanley Park.
About 10 per cent of the seawall was damaged, including large pieces of concrete and masonry that had been tossed around like Lego pieces by the water.
In Kitsilano Park, the seawall wraps around the 137-metre long pool. The ocean, the seawall and the water table are balanced to keep the pool intact. The pool stays filled with water in the winter to ensure pressure from the water table wouldn’t crush it if left empty.
But the January storm upset the balance.
“At Kits Pool, the water went right over the seawall and into the pool, and these winds were sustained for about… six hours,” said Dave Hutch, director of parks planning and development with the Vancouver Park Board.
The city and park board have been planning for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise, for years.
But Hutch said the storm was a wake-up call about the changing reality.
“These are the water levels that we're going to be experiencing,” Hutch said. “They were some of the highest that had ever been seen.”
During the annual spring cleanup of the pool, parks board staff discovered cracks in the bottom and shifts in the huge concrete slabs that make up the pool floor.
City staff sealed the cracks and did enough repairs to allow the pool to open Saturday.
But come fall, some hard decisions need to be made about the pool’s future.
The park board plans to start consultation with the public on some tough decisions about the seawall and the oceanfront pools. (Second Beach pool in Stanley Park, which is also next to the ocean on the seawall, is slightly higher than Kitsilano Pool, but is still vulnerable to being damaged by a future storm.)
“Things like the pool and the seawall, right along the edge of the water — they really weren't designed for this kind of extreme weather,” Hutch said. “They were designed at a time when sea levels were lower, and storm surges weren't as great.”
More repairs will be needed to fix Kitsilano Pool, and it’s possible the pool will even have to be moved to a different location, Hutch said. The 2022 storm damage follows a $3.3-million refurbishment that was completed in 2018, although much of that work was to repair mechanical systems.
The atmospheric river in November 2021 flooded towns and farmers’ fields and smashed the Coquihalla Highway, a major transportation and shipping route. The disaster showed the climate emergency is no longer looming in the future, and will wreak some sort of havoc every year.
The seawall and the oceanfront pools are vulnerable because they’re human-made, Hutch said. While the seawall walkway is a beloved recreational escape and gets people close to nature, its builders never anticipated our changing climate.
Hutch said the changes go beyond infrastructure and swimming pools.
“A lot of the marine ecology is really impacted by the kinds of wave and water forces that are the result of the seawall being in place,” Hutch said.
“So, we really want to describe them better. And illustrate that to people, and then start talking about options.”