Campbell River’s watershed is approximately 70 km. long stretching from Strathcona-Westmin Park in the south to the mouth of the Campbell River in the north as shown in this satellite view.

Councillor: City not doing good job explaining water restrictions

The city is not in as dire water straits as the rest of Vancouver Island and is currently only on Stage 1 water restrictions

Vancouver Island is in a stage 4 drought. But Campbell River isn’t.

And people are asking why.

They’re asking Coun. Larry Samson all the time. And he’s getting tired of it and wants the city to do a better job of explaining it to the public. Because they keep asking.

People are asking “why aren’t we at stage 2, why aren’t we at stage 3,” a frustrated Samson said at Monday’s city council meeting. “I think we need to communicate this a little better to the public.”

Samson had given council a notice of motion on July 22 asking for city staff to take a more proactive approach to explaining the current water restrictions to city residents. In the interim, Samson hasn’t seen anything come out from the city explaining why it’s not on a higher water restriction level.

Community interest in the water restrictions is high, if social media is anything to go by. There are frequent comments on Facebook about people watering their lawns when there is a drought going on and some of the debate goes to the level of threats to turn people in to authorities. Other posts also accuse various local levels of government of contravening water restrictions themselves by watering lawns at public facilities.

The problem with these “debates” is that the city is not in as dire water straits as the rest of Vancouver Island and is currently only on Stage 1 water restrictions. That’s because Campbell River’s source of water is a massive chain of lakes and reservoirs.

“Our watershed isn’t the same as other watersheds,” Coun. Charlie Cornfield said. “Our watershed is a huge watershed.”

Cornfield wasn’t saying residents shouldn’t try to conserve water – they should observe the current water restrictions – but his point was that the city’s water system is not under the same pressure other Island cities are.

The situation is exemplified by the fishing ban that is currently in place on Vancouver Island streams and rivers – except for the Quinsam, Campbell and Qualicum rivers. Those rivers are not under a fishing ban because their water levels are not considered dangerous to fish.

Samson said things like the fact that the city is only a small user of the water in the system is not well understood by the public.

“The city consumes roughly 0.4 metres per second,” Samson said. “We don’t use a lot of the water that comes out of the river.”

The Campbell River watershed begins in the mountains in the centre of Strathcona Park and flows into Buttle and Upper Campbell lakes behind the Strathcona Dam and then into Lower Campbell, John Hart and McIvor Lakes before flowing over the Ladore and John Hart dams and Elk Falls and into the Campbell River itself before flowing out to sea. It is an approximately 70-kilometre long water system.

The system’s water levels are impacted by the drought conditions on Vancouver Island. On July 27 BC Hydro, which controls the water system through three hydroelectric facilities, announced that there wouldn’t be enough water passing into the lower system to meet fish habitat and electricity generation. Consequently, it was allowing water to flow through Strathcona Dam so that it could raise the water level of the Lower Campbell/John Hart/McIvor lakes reservoir. That would fill the reservoir to the point where BC Hydro would have enough water for 32 days should there be an interruption in the flow of water from power loss to Strathcona Dam, resulting in the dam’s spillways closing, or from the level of water behind the dam dropping due to drought to a point where it couldn’t flow over the lip of the spillway.

Earlier in the summer, the city expressed concern that residents were using water at an unsustainable rate and announced that if voluntary efforts to restrict water use weren’t made, the city would have to impose higher levels of water restriction.

“Our people responded exceptionally well,” Cornfield said. “There’s no need for increased restriction.”

In June, Mayor Andy Adams congratulated residents on taking measures to conserve water.

“The city greatly appreciates the marked diligence by local residents during our current stage one watering restrictions, and we hope to delay a stage two watering restriction for as long as possible by reminding residents to be aware of their water use and keep demand to a minimum,” Adams said at the time. “Keeping our water use within the limit allows us to meet the water demand for domestic water use across the system as well as potential firefighting.”

But Samson said he is still fielding calls from the public demanding an explanation as to why Campbell River is not at higher water restrictions. He wanted to know when city staff will implement “enhanced communications” with the public. There should be ads and press releases in the media, he said.

“It hasn’t been front and centre in the newspaper,” Samson said.

“The newspaper” has covered the drought extensively but most of it has been from BC Hydro’s point of view because the utility maintains an aggressive flow of information due to the sensitivity in the community surrounding water levels in the Campbell River and the impact on fish habitat and electrical generation. Also, Hydro has embarked on a billion-dollar facility upgrade that impacts the water system.

City staff couldn’t give Samson an exact answer on when an enhanced communication program would be seen. The information is already available to the public through mailouts and on the city’s website, although getting the information from the website is challenging. It’s not immediately obvious from the city’s home page ( where to begin looking for water restrictions. Use of the search function using the term “water restrictions” results in a couple of news releases stating “Still in effect: Watering restrictions in Campbell River.”

There is also information under a “frequently asked questions” section under the “City Services” heading. One of the topics is “Water restrictions and water sprinkling FAQ.”

A sample of relevant questions under the heading are:

  • How does a drought affect lake levels and the amount of water available to the City?

“The lakes in the Campbell River watershed are capable of storing water for the drier summer months. The levels of these reservoirs are controlled by BC Hydro as per their water license and the Campbell River System Water Use Plan.  Due to the size of the watershed, the amount of water withdrawn for the City’s water system has a negligible impact on lake levels as long as the water consumption is kept within reasonable limits.  As of July 22, 2015, the community has successfully kept consumption low enough that any benefits to lake levels if further restrictions were imposed would be non-detectable.”

  • How does the City determine when to implement higher stages of restrictions?

“During the summer season, the City closely monitors water use. The decision to implement higher stages of restrictions considers the water use patterns and weather forecasts.  Increased restrictions are generally triggered by sustained water consumption over the domestic water allowance combined with forecasts of increasing temperatures.  Higher restrictions can also be triggered by specific situations such as an interface fire, significant failure of the water system, or extreme drought (i.e. if there was a risk of running out of water in the watershed).”

Meanwhile, for your information, as per a city press release issued in May, stage 1 water restrictions state:

Residential Lawn Watering/Irrigation days permitted:

  • Even numbered address: Monday, Wednesday and Saturday
  • Odd numbered address: Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday
  • Times permitted:  5 a.m – 9 a.m and 7 p.m – 10 p.m

“Watering gardens, trees, shrubs and community gardens by hand or spring-loaded type nozzles with automatic shut-off connected to hose is allowed at any time during the day in all stages of watering restrictions.

“Newly seeded and sodded lawns can request a permit from the Water Department.”