IMPROVING WHERE WE LIVE: Town of Gibsons on BC’s Sunshine Coast is a “living lab” for the whole-system, water balance approach

Note to Reader:

The article that follows was contributed by Elizabeth Quayle, Communications Coordinator with the Town of Gibsons. The article is an outcome of a Meeting of the Minds roundtable session held in October 2018, and co-hosted by the Town and the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC.  The Town is a Partnership member.

The watershed that serves the Town of Gibsons is subject to the policies of six different permitting agencies, as well as the multiple land-use decisions made at every touchpoint of a waterdrop’s journey to the ocean. Until land development practices mimic the natural water balance, communities cannot expect to restore the biological communities within streams.

“We know there are development practices that could help restore our environment, increase resilience to climate change, and reduce infrastructure costs,” says Emanuel Machado, CAO of the Town of Gibsons. “So why are we having so much trouble implementing them?”

The theme for roundtable exploration was “How to Implement Restorative Development / Water Balance Solutions”. The spotlight was on the Whole-System Approach – how will we reconnect hydrology and ecology? Hence, the significance of the Gibsons Meeting of the Minds session is the precedent it established for peer-based professional development where practitioners work.

The goal was to facilitate a shared understanding that would advance implementation of the ‘whole-system, water balance’ approach to rainwater management. CLICK HERE to download the table detailing the 4 steps in the Whole-System Approach.

The Challenge

There are certain facts most people would agree are “givens”, writes Elizabeth Quayle. It’s a given that humans are part of an integrated, complex ecosystem that requires health at every level for the whole to survive. It’s a given that climate change – and the multiple environmental and economic impacts it spurs – is one of the primary challenges currently facing humankind.

And, among many people who study these things, it’s a given that adopting a ‘whole-system, water balance’ approach to rainwater management and creekshed restoration is our best chance at both reestablishing healthy, ecologically sound waterways and mitigating the many impacts of climate change.

“We know there are development practices that could help restore our environment, increase resilience to climate change, and reduce infrastructure costs,” says Emanuel Machado, CAO of the Town of Gibsons. “So why are we having so much trouble implementing them? And what actions can we take to help developers, key decision-makers and, ultimately, legislators, overcome those challenges?”

Building a Shared Understanding

Those were the key questions at last October’s “sharing and learning” session, held in Gibsons, BC. The roundtable exploration was precedent-setting in several ways.

First, it brought together an unusually diverse range of different, but complementary, professions, organizations, and government bodies, including engineers, municipal planners, folks with senior provincial policy experience, and consultants. This created a unique opportunity for people who often work on different phases of similar development projects to share the specific challenges they faced in implementing innovative water management practices – and to gain a better understanding of the specific challenges their colleagues faced.

At the same time, the meeting sought to leverage the cross-section of professional knowledge gathered in the room to generate some practical solutions to the various challenges presented. Finally, the highly collaborative event sought to foster a true “Meeting of the Minds” – a shared understanding of the core concepts that make implementing a ‘whole-system, water balance’ approach possible.

Addressing the Realities of Implementation

One of the primary challenges local governments face is that there are often multiple organizational bodies operating across a single watershed, each with their own, misaligned, policies. So, even though these organizations may firmly believe in the science behind a whole-systems, water balance approach, it becomes nearly impossible to achieve the integrated, continuity of practice required to put that approach into place on the ground.

Additionally, there is an inherited bias toward using familiar, engineered drainage solutions rather than leveraging (or restoring) the natural asset infrastructure that exists within a region. Land development often interferes with water balance by reducing forest cover and increasing imperviousness, without preserving the natural pathways water follows to reach creeksheds.

Finally, there is a shortage of positive, real-world examples to help convince skeptics that implementing a whole-systems, water balance approach is, indeed, both possible and highly desirable.

The Town of Gibsons: A Living Lab

One example that does exist is the Town of Gibsons. In 2015, the Town formally recognized the value of its natural assets and the infrastructure services they deliver. This helped Gibsons mitigate the financial pressure faced by many municipalities with regard to their infrastructure, as natural assets are cheaper to maintain than built infrastructure and last indefinitely, if properly managed. Additionally, by officially including natural assets, such as the Gibsons aquifer, in its managed asset base, Gibsons improved its decision-making, and broadened its planning and budgeting process.

The next step for Gibsons was to invest in the creation of two technical documents to provide context and guidance for its creekshed and drainage planning.

The first, a report co-funded by Gibsons and the Partnership, provided an in-depth assessment of the region’s watershed and established targets for achieving water balance in the town. This became the basis for populating the Water Balance Express Model, a free, online tool also co-funded by the Partnership and the Town of Gibsons, that first, teaches residents about the importance of water balance, and second, provides practical advice on how to develop their land, while maintaining or (even better) restoring Gibsons’ natural water balance.

Gibsons also updated its Integrated Stormwater (Rainwater) Management Plan (ISMP) to reflect refinements in senior staff’s thinking around rainwater and the role eco-assets can play in its management. While the 2010 ISMP, for example, determined that high-flow stormwater diversion from the upper regions of the Town was too costly to practically fund, the updated ISMP provides a natural, significantly less costly solution that may be implemented in stages as development progresses.

Updating our ISMP provided the opportunity to bring it into line with our improved understanding of water balance and the critical role natural assets such as trees, soil, green space and water balance pathways play in achieving it,” said Dave Newman, Gibsons’ Director of Infrastructure Services.

“Additionally, because our ISMP is referenced in Gibsons’ Subdivision and Development and Stormwater Management Bylaw 1175, it acts as a de facto regulatory document which requires developers to adopt sound water balance practices.

“One of the focuses of the new ISMP is to create the requirement for achievable stormwater and rainwater management practices – that is, affordable and implementable. As a result, there is a greater focus on creating natural stormwater management infrastructure for the community, such as ponds, rather than creating a multitude of smaller, privately owned drainage components.” 

End-to-End Collaboration is the Answer

Clearly, it is no small task for communities to implement a whole-systems approach and, ultimately, to restore water balance within a region. However, roundtable discussions like the one held in Gibsons last fall can be a positive step forward.

“Last October’s Meeting of the Minds was invaluable,” said Emanuel Machado, Gibsons’ Chief Administrative Officer. “One of the key impediments to implementing a whole-systems, water balance approach is the many policies, practices and ideas the various players within a particular watershed bring to their work. Our roundtable session helped promote a better understanding of the challenges faced by peers and provided the opportunity to brainstorm solutions to perceived roadblocks.

“Additionally, as the relationships forged at the roundtable are ongoing, it helped foster the type of open collaboration it’s going to take to align practices and policies across the multiple governing bodies that administer a watershed. And if we can do that, the payoff is massive – better ecologic health and increased resiliency to climate change.”

To learn more about the Whole-System, Water Balance Approach, attend the Parksville 2019 Symposium 

Visit the Symposium homepage for a set of stories that paint a complete picture of the program: