Regional water discussion gets a little heated

Qualicum Beach mayor not sure he wants his town to be part of any regional water governance

The communities stretching from Nanaimo to Deep Bay are experiencing different struggles and successes with water, making for a heated debate Tuesday evening about collectively dealing with the precious resource.

At Tuesday evening’s regular Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) meeting, staff received tentative approval from the board for a number of initiatives associated with water resource management.

The decision needs to be ratified at the next regular RDN meeting slated for Sept. 29.

Board members were split when presented with a report proposing the RDN: work with municipalities and First Nations to develop a regional water governance model; develop water pricing and regulation changes to RDN-operated water service areas reflecting conservation priorities; update water requirements for subdivision and development; and work with member municipalities and water purveyors to review standardized drought protocols.

“Governance? Regional approach? Standardized pricing?” said Qualicum Beach Mayor Teunis Westbroek. “Qualicum Beach has bought its well fields. They are natural recharge areas and the monitoring well is showing actually that it’s recharging. So I feel like we’ve managed well and… planned accordingly, which is a result of good planning and now I feel like, ‘OK, you’ve done so well, we want what you have. You looked after your resources’ and now you want us to pipe into other areas who’ve had growth,” said Westbroek. “Now we’re going to share resources? I don’t think that’s quite fair.”

Moreover, Westbroek said even though Qualicum Beach wasn’t faced with the same stringent water restrictions as neighbouring Parksville or Nanoose Bay he noticed lawns in all the communities looked relatively similar.

“People realize just because we have the water doesn’t mean we can waste it,” he said. “People just use their own common sense and I don’t think we want to get involved with ‘governance.’” Westbroek said the town has governed themselves just fine historically and he’s not ready to “buy into another model we don’t know will work when we have a model that’s working well.”

Director Bill Veenhof, who represents Deep Bay/Bowser, was also quick to criticize the report saying he would vote against all proposed changes.  “Much is made of the drought in 2015 but I will tell you that in Deep Bay our monitoring well was one meter higher in terms of the water availability than it was last year,” Veenhof said.

“I’m uncomfortable with the word ‘governance.’ The only place where the RDN has a governance role is in the rural areas and this seems to speak to governance of the municipalities, First Nations… It’s kind of a slippery slope.”

Director Julian Fell, who represents Coombs/Errington, echoed both directors’ comments.

“(The report) implies we’re getting warmer and warmer and there will be less rainfall but as it happens I’ve kept a well log on my property for the last 23 years and the information doesn’t support this trend towards drought,” said Fell, noting according to his data “the lowest year was followed by the fourth highest year and the highest year preceded the fourth lowest year… Rainfall is far more variable.”

Parksville Mayor Marc Lefebvre seemed baffled by the negative rhetoric. “I’m rather surprised at some of the comments (from directors) who see this as a threatening document,” said Lefebvre. “I don’t see it as threatening at all. I think it would strengthen our focus and relationship to one another when it comes to a fundamental element — water — that’s fundamental to life.”

Parksville currently remains under the restrictions of drought level 4. A city spokesperson said late last week officials have spoken about changing the water restriction levels but decided against it. The city is being tasked with building a new water treatment system mandated by Island Health.

“I want to tell you a little bit about my experience — maybe some of you haven’t dealt with Island Health yet, I have; maybe some of you haven’t dealt with Fisheries and Oceans yet, I have, and these are pretty powerful bodies when it comes to the use of water and what you have to do to treat the water,” Lefebvre told the board with frustration. “It’s been through hell and high water for my little city over the last 10 months.”

Most of the board’s Nanaimo contingent seemed to support the report with Coun. Wendy Pratt saying “it’s always important for us to look for new and better ways to do things, (the report) doesn’t say we will be doing anything but we will look into it to see if it’s a better approach.”

Regional district CAO Paul Thorkelsson said there certainly have been “loud calls” from the community, some calling for “an approach to governance that recognizes those boundaries that exist for municipalities don’t make any sense, we’re in this together, it’s a bigger issue than boundaries.”

Thorkelsson noted the outcome of these potential initiatives are yet to be determined, “but it’s important that going forward we collectively look at new ways to address significant challenges.”

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