Interview offers insight into ‘watershed / stream’ approach: What makes BC’s stormwater approach different than other jurisdictions in North America?
Watershed objectives start with the stream and end with the stream, say Jim Dumont & Kim Stephens
In May 2016, writer James Careless interviewed Kim Stephens and Jim Dumont, two experienced water resource practitioners, about the hydrology-based approach to rainwater (stormwater) management that has been evolving in British Columbia over the past two decades.
The British Columbia approach, with its emphasis on the water balance, contrasts with a water quality oriented approach in the rest of Canada. James Careless posed a set of five questions, with the objective of informing a national audience about what makes the BC approach different.
Kim Stephens is the Executive Director, Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia. Jim Dumont is the Partnership’s Engineering Applications Authority.
- What makes BC’s stormwater approach different than other jurisdictions; particularly the U.S.?
- Why did BC take this different approach?
- What is the fallout from only focusing on water quality, as opposed to the impact on eco-systems as well?
- What are the challenges in implementing BC’s approach?
- Are other jurisdictions doing something similar to BC?
Q1 – What Makes British Columbia Different?
“The difference in British Columbia is that the stream is included in the Water Balance Methodology, whereas many other jurisdictions simplify the problem to the site of the development, with an emphasis on creating rainwater gardens and similar measures to infiltrate and reduce surface runoff volumes,” explained Jim Dumont.
“The objectives of the Water Balance Methodology start with the stream and end with the stream, providing a true measure of success in achieving environmental protection,” emphasized Jim Dumont.
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Q2 – Why did BC take this different approach?
“We were focused upon the loss of salmon in our streams and built on the science and research from Washington State. The research established that the loss was due to damages to habitat resulting from ‘changes in hydrology’ and stream erosion that result from urban development, rather than toxic pollutants,” stated Jim Dumont.
Primacy of Hydrology
Kim Stephens continued as follows in elaborating on why this research is so significant:
“In 1996, Richard Horner and Chris May (University of Washington, Seattle) published their seminal research on the cumulative impacts of land use change on stream health. Their findings shook conventional stormwater management wisdom in the Pacific Northwest to its very foundation.”
“The legacy of Horner & May resides in their science-based ranking of four limiting factors, with ‘changes in hydrology’ being #1 and water quality #4.”
“In British Columbia, we translated science-based understanding into a road map for science-based action to restore watershed health. The work of Horner & May is integrated into Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia (2002) and their findings drive the Water Balance Methodology.”
Q3 – What is the fallout from only focusing on water quality, as opposed to the impact on ecosystems as well?
“The loss of aquatic habitat and fish populations resulting from urban impacts to streams is ignored when the focus is solely upon runoff water quality. This will result in the ongoing loss of fish populations and aquatic habitat in clean urban streams,” answered Jim Dumont.
Shifting Baseline Syndrome
Kim Stephens then provided this background understanding to provide relevance for the above assessment by Jim Dumont:
“Dr. Daniel Pauly (University of BC) developed the concept of the Shifting Baseline Syndrome to describe why each new generation lacks direct knowledge of the historical condition of the environment, and how this lack of understanding plays out as a ‘failure to notice change’.”
According to Daniel Pauly: “We transform the world, but we don’t remember it. We adjust our baseline to the new level, and we don’t recall what was there.”
“Awareness of shifting baselines in BC has been reflected in a number of landmark processes, with the most recent being the Water Sustainability Act (2014),”: noted Kim Stephens.
Q4 – What are the challenges in implementing BC’s approach?
“The principal challenge is in widening the view of regulators and practitioners to include the stream and aquatic habitat when it is so easy for them to focus solely upon the development site and creation of rain gardens to reduce surface runoff,” stated Jim Dumont upon reflection.
It Takes Time to Turn Ideas Into Action
“The Province of BC enables local government. It does not prescribe solutions,” continued Kim Stephens. “The regulatory focus is on outcomes – such as, shift the ecological baseline upwards. This bottom-up approach relies on education, enabling tools and consensus to turn ideas into action.”
“The power of the enabling approach is that it encourages innovation and makes it possible to leapfrog ahead when the science leads us to a better way. However, the challenge lies in the investment of effort it takes to inform, educate and build capacity among land and water practitioners to understand and apply ‘watershed systems thinking’ and then implement ‘design with nature’ standards of practice that will actually restore hydrologic integrity and hence stream health.”
Progress in Addressing the Educational Challenge
“Recognition of this education challenge/reality was an underlying consideration during development of Asset Management for Sustainable Service Delivery: A Framework for BC (2014). This is a game-changer because it provides a financial incentive for local governments to do business differently.”
“It does this by connecting the dots between eligibility for provincial grants, local government services, the infrastructure that supports the delivery of those services, and the health of watershed systems.”
“BC is at a tipping point. Our challenge, and hence our opportunity in the coming years, is to progressively move towards Sustainable Watershed Systems, through Asset Management.”
“Success will result in a blend between engineered assets and nature’s services. When we are successful, we will have restored hydrologic integrity and we will have avoided expensive fixes.”
Q5 – Are other jurisdictions doing something similar to BC?
“The analytical approach used in the Water Balance Methodology is verifiable, and allow the mitigation works to be optimized for size and cost while achieving the watershed objectives,” emphasized Jim Dumont.
“Both Washington State and California have adopted a very similar flow duration analysis as part of their mandated National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Stormwater Permits applications that are required under the Clean Water Act.”