Designing the Green City: Re-inventing Rainwater Management in the Capital Region

A new ELC report aims to solve the problems caused by stormwater in the Capital Region. Acting for the Veins of Life Watershed Society, the comprehensive report, Re-inventing Rainwater Management: Protecting Health and Restoring Nature in the Capital Region, documents the vast damage stormwater causes and then lays out a strategy for solving the problem.

Mismanagement of rain water (“stormwater”) creates serious environmental impacts. The traditional approach of constructing vast amounts of impervious surface (paving and roofs) in developments, and then piping rain water to the nearest water body wastes water and hampers water conservation. And it is extraordinarily harmful. Stormwater runoff accounts for 30 per cent of the pollution of water bodies across North America and 75 per cent of the toxic pollution in places like Puget Sound. The runoff includes toxic metals, oils, PCBs, solvents, pesticides, herbicides, leaded paint chips, etc.

Stormwater-borne PCBs is one of the biggest threats to the survival of orca — and stormwater is one of the main reasons why most shellfish beds in the Capital Regional District (CRD) are closed as unsafe. In addition, stormwater enters streams at increased volume and velocity, scouring and silting fish habitat, and depriving streams of critical water in dry seasons. Poor stormwater management is a major reason why many streams in the Capital Regional District (CRD) no longer support salmon. Salmon habitat becomes radically degraded when stormwater drains a watershed with more than 10-15 per cent impervious surface. Stormwater surges and pollution regularly thwarts local restoration efforts.

Finally, aging stormwater and sanitary sewer infrastructure – and improper connection of sanitary sewage from some houses into stormwater pipes – means that stormwater deposits raw sewage onto beaches, especially during heavy rainfalls. This poses a health hazard that the local Medical Health Officer has repeatedly decried – by pointing out that these stormwater-related sewage releases are a greater health concern than the municipal sewage being deposited deep into the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Although these problems are well-documented, local governments have often chosen to ignore the problem, or do the minimum necessary.

At a time when monitoring shows serious new declines in stormwater quality, last year the CRD actually halted its 15-year-old program to monitor storm water pipe discharges because of budget cuts. The Veins of Life Society asked the ELC to draft a law reform strategy to address this problem. ELC students Neil Wyper, Michelle Chan and Adam Campbell – collaborating with summer volunteer, Dalhousie Law grad and Gold Medalist Gord McGuire — have drafted a comprehensive strategy that would put the Capital Region in the forefront in North America in developing a truly “green” approach to managing rain water. The strategy document demonstrates that by designing our stormwater management to work with natural systems, we can prevent most of the above problems. The strategy shows that green techniques for dealing with stormwater problems are now available, practical and affordable – it just requires action by the CRD and local municipalities to implement the solution. Once implemented, the strategy will move the Capital Region from 19th century stormwater management to 21st century rainwater management. The strategy report, Re-inventing Rainwater Management – Protecting health and Restoring Nature in the Capital Region, identifies that most of the problems can be addressed by new green techniques for managing rainwater. By keeping rainwater on the land where it falls and mimicking natural water cycles, most of the problems associated with stormwater can be addressed. The report:

  • Brings together a compendium of information from different sources, documenting the serious impacts of stormwater on human health, water pollution, health of salmon streams, the closure of shellfish beds, the risk to survival of orca.
  • Presents striking case studies of those impacts. For example, it has vignettes on exactly how stormwater has destroyed salmon streams at Douglas Creek, Reay Creek, Bowker Creek — and thwarted the volunteer efforts of people trying to restore those streams.
  • Concludes that the Capital Regional District should be empowered to ensure the implementation of a region-wide stormwater strategy – since the necessary watershed planning is not being done by the fragmented jurisdiction of the 13 municipalities in the region.
  • Identifies the need to provide earmarked funding for stormwater initiatives, which are historically starved for funds because the problem is largely invisible. The report proposes that local governments adopt the approach of charging property owners a utility fee for stormwater services – and reducing the fee if the owner uses green techniques to keep water on their property. The stormwater utility charge would provide the money needed to fix broken infrastructure – and the reduction would provide incentives for citizens to reduce the demand on infrastructure.

The strategy would:

  • Establish a 25 year Integrated Rainwater Management Plan with tough but attainable targets.
  • Promote the “Low Impact Development Revolution” in all new and existing development by encouraging the practical modern techniques for keeping water on the land that are now routinely implemented in other jurisdictions. This approach not only maintains natural water cycles but also saves stormwater investment costs in the long term.
  • Implement a regional Stormwater Source Control Bylaw to ensure that construction operations, auto shops, parking lots, recreation facilities and others use best practices in managing rainwater.
  • Provide other measures as part of a blueprint for shifting stormwater management from a 19th century mechanistic paradigm to a 21st century paradigm of “designing with nature,” instead of at cross-purposes.

The final report will be presented at a public meeting on March 4 at the Law School. Municipal councilors and government officials have been invited, as well as experts and members of the public. Presentations will also be made to local governments and potentially to Justice Cohen’s Judicial Inquiry into the disappearance of Fraser River sockeye. There is already intense among government officials in our report.


JULY 27, 2010

Where it Falls: Re-inventing Rainwater Management

This 10-minute video prepared as part of a presentation to the CRD on July 28, 2010, explores some of the problems associated with stormwater runoff pollution in the Capital Regional District. “The fact that we unexpectedly discovered a spill during Robert Bridgeman’s interview was really a mixed blessing,” says ELC filmmaker Holly Pattison. “Although it was terrible to see such pollution in Douglas Creek, it provided us with a vivid example of what the ELC report is all about. I hope this film and the longer version will be useful tools for the public to learn about stormwater pollution and for lawmakers to take action in order to protect the environment.”

July 28, 2010

Stressing the need to clean our beaches and work with natural water cycles, ELC clinic student Paddy O’Reilly asked the Capital Regional District (CRD) today to implement fundamental changes to how we deal with stormwater in the region. By turning landscape into hardscape with impervious roads, sidewalks, parking lots and roofs, Paddy noted, we have forced water that would naturally seep into the earth to instead sweep across pavement, picking up pollution and speed as it charges through pipes and shoots into our streams. “Washington State scientists have found that the bulk of toxins going into Puget Sound are from storwmater – 100,000 lbs of toxins a day,” Paddy quoted from the ELC’s report. “Every 24 months, stormwater delivers a volume of oil equal to the Exxon Valdez spill into the Sound.” Relying on the ELC’s report “Re-inventing Rainwater Management: A strategy to protect health and restore nature in the Capital Region,” Paddy brought forward a series of recommendations to the Joint Meeting hosted by the Core Area Liquid Waste Management Committee with the Environmental Sustainability Committee. Noting positive local examples, such as Trent Street rain gardens and the Bowker Creek Initiative, Paddy called on the committee to go farther with a comprehensive approach to rain water management in the CRD. She urged the committee to unite the CRD’s 13 municipalities under an overarching Storm Sewer Bylaw, develop policies and law reform that supports low impact development (LID) and fix old infrastructure. Many of the councillors thanked the ELC for the presentation and called for the committee to come together to deal with stormwater issues. Councillor Vic Derman noted, “There has to be a paradigm shift in how we deal with stormwater management, which is causing huge environmental damage, arguably more than sewage.” Following the ELC’s presentation, CRD staff presenting an Integrated Watershed Management Progress Report called for a more holistic approach to watershed management. Councillor Judy Brownoff commented, “We appreciate UVic as a resource, their ability to teach, research and produce amazing reports.” For more information about how we can deal with stormwater problems, see “Re-inventing Rainwater Management: A strategy to protect health and restore nature in the Capital Region.”