Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

Image: Collingwood Bay.

This line, from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, truly sums up one of the more serious problems facing the world today as a result of poor resource management and global warming.

Last summer was a hot, dry summer in Port Neville. When we arrived at our site on June 10th, the two creeks on the property had already dried up. They did flow briefly several times during the summer after a day or two of rain, but didn’t flow continuously again until the beginning of September. So we knew we were going to have some water concerns.

This May, as we started to put the plumbing in the cabin, we also started working on our water supply. Since we don’t yet know how dry this summer will get, or for how long, we have done a combination of things which we hope will give us enough water for household needs and our garden. Up-slope from the house, and not too far from the creek, we have dug a well. At the moment, the well is quite shallow, as it immediately started to fill when we dug it. However, if it dries out this summer, we will deepen it. The well has good clay along the sides and bottom, and seems to hold water. The water quality is good enough for drinking (although we are still boiling our water), so this will be our main household supply. We now also have gutters on our roof, and have plumbed the gutters into a series of 55 gallon barrels and one fish tote. This provides us with a fairly large amount of water when it rains, which we can use for laundry and the gardens. However, we don’t think this will be enough to sustain the gardens if we get more than a week or two of really hot dry weather. So as a last measure, we dug a second “well” (actually just a deep hole) in the creek bed just below the house. This hole doesn’t hold water, as we didn’t hit a very good clay layer where we dug it. However, it forms a good pump-out hole when the creek is running. It is our intention to get more 55 gallon barrels for water storage close to the gardens, and pump them full of water from the creek when there is water flowing. This will hopefully give us enough reserve to last between rains.

So, at the moment, while the upper well holds out, we have running water in the cabin. Although we have enough elevation for a gravity feed system, we have installed a small electric pump to give us some added pressure for the shower. Having the ability to run the household plumbing by gravity is a good back-up option should our batteries fail.

When we purchased the property a year ago, I was concerned that we might have to deal with water shortages, since much of Vancouver Island has water problems during the summer. However, I had some hope that we might have a year round water supply. The forestry maps that I had for the region marked the two creeks on the property as permanent, not seasonal, flows. The land had been an old homestead site, dating back to probably the early 1900’s. It was unlikely that someone would homestead at a site with no year round water. However, when we arrived, there was no water. What happened to the creeks?

One possible suspect in the “case of the missing water” might be global warming. The mean annual precipitation, in mm, for our home is 2129. Averaging all of the available climate change models for this region, it is predicted that the mean annual precipitation will be 2231 mm by 2025. This is actually an increase, not a decrease! However, the distribution of this precipitation will change somewhat, with about 32 mm less rain in the spring and summer, and 135 mm more in the fall and winter. This doesn’t sound like enough of a change to dry up a creek.

A more plausible explanation is poor resource management. Vancouver Island and the mainland across Johnstone Strait from Vancouver Island are riddled with clear cuts. Forests impact the timing and magnitude of water runoff and water flows in creeks. Forest ecosystems can act as sponges, intercepting rainfall and absorbing water through root systems. Water is stored in porous forest soils and debris, and then is slowly released into surface waters and groundwater. These processes maintain a base stream flow level, and lower peak flows during heavy rainfall. When the forests are clear cut, the ability of the land to absorb water like a sponge is lost. Instead, when it rains, the creeks become torrential and serious soil erosion occurs. When there are periods of no rain, the creeks dry up entirely.

Our site was clearcut approximately 15 years ago. There are other, newer, clear cuts on the mountain slopes above us. When it rains heavily on the mountains, our creeks begins to run within hours. These are all signs that the forest has a reduced capacity to absorb water. This, coupled with increasingly warm summers (from global warming) creating increased evaporation, is likely the reason why our creeks run dry.

There is hope, however. Our forest is well on it’s way to recovery. As the 50 acres surrounding our creeks goes through succession from a predominantly alder forest to an evergreen forest, the soil will deepen and the forest will once again store more water and release it slowly. If this happens, our creeks may run in the summer again.