The limits of fresh water in Port Alberni

Alberni Valley Times
April 20, 2015 12:00 AM

We in the Alberni Valley and British Columbia wonder when the “Big One” will hit – meaning, of course, the next big earthquake, expected to strike sometime in the next 500 years, give or take a few centuries.

In Port Alberni any large earthquake could trigger another tsunami, and we’re reminded every first Wednesday of the month by the audible tsunami warning system.

While the next mega-thrust quake or tsunami might seem more exciting, and we ask ourselves whether we’re prepared for it; we might also ask ourselves whether we’re prepared for another kind of crisis: drought.

It seems counter-intuitive to worry about a lack of water for us who live amidst a rainforest.

But as city engineer Guy Cicon warns us, water restrictions may be more severe this year than ever.

How can this be, when the Alberni Valley receives an average of 1,900 millimetres – nearly two metres – of precipitation every year? A low snowpack. That spring runoff is essential for keeping our rivers and reservoirs from Bainbridge Lake, which we depend on for potable water, flowing into our pipes to pump out our taps.

Although we can see a dusting of white stuff on our nearby mountains, the B.C. government’s River Forecast Centre measured a snowpack just 15 per cent of normal on the mountains surrounding Alberni. It’s the lowest snowpack in over 30 years, following a mild winter with temperature averages about two degrees higher than normal.

That could lead to stricter water restrictions, and sooner than ever before, according to the city.

Last month a University of British Columbia professor of watershed management, Hans Schreier, told the CBC that our province is poorly prepared for a drought – and a drought is possible.

We can look at California, which is four years into one of the worse droughts on record, for an example of what could happen. Earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered mandatory water restrictions for the first time in the U.S. state’s history.

One notable side effect of a drought is a severe reduction in power, Schreier said. Lack of water in California, where hydro electricity accounts for about one fifth of the grid, cost over a billion dollars in lost power.

In B.C., however, hydro accounts for about 90 per cent of our electricity, Schreier said. Any major reduction in water across the province would cause major problems for our access to power.

While Californians are now forced to cut down their water usage, we in Alberni can help save fresh water here by voluntarily reducing the amount we use that we don’t really need.

A movement in the southwest U.S. to save this precious resource is in a change to one of our modern domestic icons: the green lawn. Water conservation efforts down south urge home owners to consider artificial grass. It begs the question: Do we really need a lawn? There are other landscaping possibilities that could use much less water.

During World Water Day festivities in Port Alberni last month, Mayor Mike Ruttan boldly declared that the city must gain “total control” of the watershed – an ambitious aim. Currently, our watershed is entangled with forestry companies, and it will take a tremendous amount of political will (and dollars) to wrest full control of it for local government.

In the meantime, we might consider small ways we can reduce our excessive use of water. Because despite all that rain, it’s not unlimited.

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