SCIENCE OF LAND USE CHANGE AND STREAM SYSTEM INTEGRITY: “Twenty years after release of BC’s Stormwater Planning Guidebook, how water gets to a stream and how long it takes, is still not widely understood. Parksville’s Shelly Creek is an ongoing test case for the Water Balance Methodology to raise awareness of what needs to be done to reconnect hydrology and stream ecology,” stated Peter Law, Vice-President of the Mid Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society (June 2022)
Note to Reader
The edition of Waterbucket eNews published on June 7, 2022 featured Peter Law and the “story behind the story” of Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia, released in June 2002. Without Peter Law, there would have been no Guidebook. Peter saw the need, garnered support within government, and was hands-on in shepherding the Guidebook from inception to completion.
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Restore the ‘natural Water Balance’ to stabilize streams, restore aquatic habitat, and sustain summer streamflow
Twenty years ago in June 2002, the government of British Columbia released Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia. It was soon recognized across North America for its science-based foundation and its innovation. Tom Schueler, the respected thought leader who founded the Center for Urban Watershed Protection, extolled the Guidebook because of the night-and-day contrast with cookie-cutter guides and manuals in the United States.
The Guidebook premise is that land development and watershed protection can be compatible, BUT ONLY IF communities apply systems thinking and Design With Nature to restore the natural water balance.
Science of Land Use Change
“Rollout of the Fish Protection Act in 1997 was the catalyst for action to develop the Guidebook. The context for both was the ‘salmon crisis’ in the Salish Sea bioregion. Within five years, Peter Law’s tireless efforts culminated in Guidebook publication,” recalls Kim Stephens, Guidebook project manager and principal author.
“The defining moment that set the Guidebook process in motion was a consultation workshop hosted by the Union of BC Municipalities in October 1997. This was part of the Fish Protection Act rollout. Washington State’s Bill Derry and I presented what were soon known as the ‘fish pictures’.”
“Based on Puget Sound research, Bill Derry and I developed the ‘fish pictures’ to explain the science of land use change to local government audiences. At last, we had a science-based understanding of cause-and-effect. This was our point of departure for action to protect stream systems.“
Conversational interview with Peter Law about the ‘story behind the story’ of the Stormwater Guidebook
Twenty years after release of the Guidebook, how water gets to a stream and how long it takes, is still not widely understood among drainage practitioners and local government decision-makers. “When I look back, the thing that disappoints me is how long it has taken for the practitioners to apply the approach versus playing lip service to what we were requesting at the time,” stated Peter Law in a moment of reflection.
Leading by example: For the past decade, and as a volunteer streamkeeper, Peter Law has been putting Guidebook principles into practice in Shelly Creek. This is the last fish-bearing stream in the City of Parksville. Peter is Vice-President of the Mid Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society.
With support from the Partnership for Water Sustainability, MVIHES has undertaken a range of demonstration applications that push the envelope of contemporary practices. As Peter Law often reminds those who are curious, “Shelly Creek is an ongoing test case for the Water Balance Methodology”.
A storyline in three parts:
The conversational interview is organized in three parts. In Part One of the storyline, Peter describes how his journey began in 1997. In Part Two, he explains the Guidebook breakthrough which is the science-based Water Balance Methodology. In Part Three, he describes his Shelly Creek mission to make a difference.
PART ONE: How the Guidebook journey began
When the inter-ministry working group was developing the streamside protection regulation in 1997, the presentation on the science of land use change by Kim Stephens and Bill Derry helped us realize that we needed more than a setback to protect aquatic habitat.
The science showed that communities also needed to tackle what was happening on the land that drains to streams. This realization set in motion two parallel paths, the Streamside Protection Regulation which eventually became the Riparian Area Regulation (RAR) and Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia. The focus of streamside setbacks is to protect fish and fish habitat.
For the Guidebook path, I found the opportunity to “look beyond the stream” and address poor water quality from drainage runoff in the Waste Management Act. The opportunity resided in the non-point source provision for Liquid Waste Management Plans (LWMP). The term non-point source pollution, or NPS, was used by my colleagues in the Waste Management Branch to highlight poor quality of runoff from developed and/or developing lands – that is, “stormwater”.
But the NPS provision was not being applied to the issue of how land is developed. So, I asked my colleagues, why not use this mechanism to connect the dots between changes to the land and impacts on streams?
Relationships and collaboration between branches – that is how we moved the Guidebook idea forward within the Ministry of Environment. After the success of the first of the SmartStorm Forums in January 1999, I made a pitch to the Regional Director and Section Head for Waste Management. They saw the utility in the idea. The next step was getting buy-in from a senior manager in Victoria. She thought the idea made a lot of sense.
Then, out of the blue, Environment Canada stepped up to co-fund the Guidebook and assign a co-chair (Laura Maclean) who was terrific in that role. This was the first game-changer. The second game-changer was a sentence in a letter from the Minister of Environment that “encouraged” the Regional District of Nanaimo to upgrade the stormwater component of its LWMP. The stars had aligned!
Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia was developed to provide guidance for the “stormwater component” of LWMPs. The regulatory significance is that the Minister approves the plan. This creates a legal obligation on the part of local governments.
PART TWO: Water Balance Methodology enables performance targets
The Guidebook process straddled two provincial government administrations. The potential implication of a change in government is illustrated by what happened to the streamside protection regulation. The previous order-in-council for the Streamside Protection Regulation was rescinded in 2001. It was 2006 before the replacement Riparian Areas Protection Regulation became law.
Meanwhile, the Guidebook rolled out smoothly. The Guidebook’s reliance on case studies combined with the emphasis on performance targets aligned with the philosophy of the Premier and cabinet. Within months of publication, there was funding to develop the Water Balance Model as an extension of the Guidebook.
In 2009, the intergovernmental partnership co-chaired by the Province and Environment Canada received a Premier’s Award of Excellence for the online decision support tool, the first of its kind.
Breakthrough after breakthrough:
In 1997, Washington State science defined and correlated the nature of the land use problem. Their breakthrough was in establishing impervious area thresholds for irreversible impacts on stream ecology.
Bill Derry believed that BC would leapfrog Washington State. He was proven right. In 2000, the BC breakthrough was development of the Water Balance Methodology. It gave communities a path forward to tackle changes in watershed hydrology at the source – that is, on individual properties.
The Guidebook premise:
The volume-based Water Balance Methodology is also described as “water balance accounting”. The methodology allows local governments to establish achievable performance targets to slow, spread and sink rainwater runoff in order to mimic the natural flow patterns in streams.
When the Guidebook was released, this capability to set targets gave the steering committee the confidence to be bold and state: land development and watershed protection can be compatible. In 2002, this statement represented a radical shift in thinking. It became known as “the Guidebook premise”.
We were hopeful that all the players would embrace shared responsibility and communities would move from stopgap remediation to long-term restoration of properly functioning streams. We are not there yet.
PART THREE: Shelly Creek on Vancouver Island
Restoration of Shelly Creek is my passion and my mission. The good news is that the creek provides limited but valuable habitat for Coho and Trout populations. The bad news is that turbidity values are among the highest in the region. The ugly news is that the stream channel is suffering from severe erosion and low summer flows.
So can we put the Genie back in the bottle? Can we restore stream flows to natural conditions? Yes, I believe we can. It means we must build trust with elected reps, local government staff and developers to collaborate on Win-Win rainwater projects in the Shelley Creek drainage area.
To this day, all my volunteer work is based on looking to the Guidebook and seeing where and how we can make something happen. Consider, for example, streamflow monitoring that would inform adaptive management.
Stewardship groups have local knowledge about local water resources, and are the most invested and most connected to the land base. It is in the small tributary streams where the impacts of changes in the seasonal water balance are being felt most.
Small streams are now going dry and have zero levels of riparian protection, mostly because in the early days of streamside protection they weren’t seen as worthy of levels of protection.
In 2018, MVIHES partnered with the Ministry of Environment to pilot Closing the Data Gap: Water Stewards, the Key to the Future, Streamflow monitoring by MVIHES is ongoing. The Ministry’s objective is to build stewardship sector capacity to do flow measurement. The people who are involved in this grass-roots program are all volunteers.
Now that I am the one standing in the creek to take the flow measurements, I appreciate just how much variability there is around hydrology. So, I can see why it take 10 years to have confidence in computer model results. Over the long-term, I believe local stewardship groups have an essential role to play in refining the water balance numbers and our understanding of what they mean.
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