Q&A: How bad is Level 5 drought for residents of Nanaimo?

An interview with the City of Nanaimo’s longtime general manager of engineering and public works on the effects of drought on the local water supply.
A full, dammed lake is shown with a railing access point and pipes.
Nanaimo’s dammed storage lake, Jump Lake, is shown at full storage level. Photo courtesy of the City of Nanaimo

Earlier this month, Bowinn Ma, the minister of emergency management and climate readiness, hosted a press conference with other representatives from the ministries of agriculture and forestry and experts from the River Forecast Centre and B.C. Wildfire Service to advise residents on how to deal with the severe drought situation in B.C.

The first three weeks of July were the hottest month ever recorded globally, and this follows on from the hottest June on record, according to a joint statement released last week from U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. 

Caused by a combination of fossil fuel emissions, natural variations in climate and the shift from wetter La Niña to El Niño, WMO’s secretary-general Petteri Taalas stated that “the extreme weather … [is] unfortunately the harsh reality of climate change and a foretaste of the future.” 

As of July 27, two-thirds of B.C.’s water basins are categorized as Drought Level 4 or 5, which means that according to the provincial classification system, “adverse impacts to socio-economic or ecosystem values” are either likely (Level 4) or almost certain (Level 5).

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All of Vancouver Island is now at Drought Level 5, and though the recent rains have likely helped, they don’t appear to have pulled us out of the danger zone just yet.

Okay, sounds bad. But the situation can be very different in each community and municipality, so what does all this mean for Nanaimo residents?

To get a better understanding of how Nanaimo residents’ access to water may be affected by the drought, I called up Bill Sims, general manager of engineering and public works at the City of Nanaimo, to get his take on our water access situation. Here’s a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Chadwick: So what is the current drought situation in Nanaimo?

Sims: The drought is quite severe, there’s no question of that. Certainly within the watershed, we’re seeing about 10 per cent of our normal precipitation over the last three or four months. And then in town, we’re seeing about 25 per cent of our normal precipitation. Now that’s excluding the rain that we had last week. We had 34 mm of rain in the watershed (at Jump Lake) on Monday and Tuesday of last week, which stopped the drop in water levels for a few days.

That helped, but it’s obviously not going to make much of a difference. You need weeks and weeks of prolonged rain to bring soil moisture and stream water back to appropriate levels.

That’s compared to the past 10 years for the months of May, June, July. We have data loggers that we record daily rainfall amounts.

So the drought is very severe, and our water supply system is being drawn down. I would say it’s kind of normal, within fluctuations. In some cases we’ve maintained full storage for longer, and then in other years we’ve started to draw down sooner. 

This was a year that we started to draw down Jump Lake [the city’s dammed storage lake] a bit sooner, because we had a really early kick to the dry season in May, so we had quite a bit of consumption. We just need to be a bit careful to make sure that lasts. We’re planning to make sure that we’ve got enough water in case we have a drought all the way through to the end of October.

But having said that, we’ve still got lots of room and we’re in good shape, but we’re being very careful and cautious about how we release water. We also need to release water to the [Nanaimo] River for environmental flow needs, and we do that in concert with Nanaimo Forest Products. That’s what’s keeping the Nanaimo River flowing.

Within the City of Nanaimo, we’re at Stage 3 watering restrictions. Within the Regional District of Nanaimo, so the outlying small water systems, they are at Stage 4 and those ones are typically on groundwater for the most part. 

We’re a little more robust of a system because we can collect some of the water in the wintertime and hold it for summer use. The city’s watershed is large, capable of producing a lot of water, and we have a large amount of storage capacity. Some of the other neighbouring systems around us that are more reliant on groundwater have less certainty because it takes longer for those groundwater levels to rebound.

Chadwick: So what’s the difference between systems that are reliant on surface water versus those that are reliant on groundwater?

Sims: Our water comes from rainfall and snow melt and so on, and because we collect it in the wintertime specifically for release in the summertime, we’re in pretty good shape.

Groundwater systems usually consist of a series of wells drilled into the ground, from which water is pumped. On Vancouver Island, groundwater is relatively hard to come by—there are not many large aquifers that can reliably provide high volumes of water.  As communities grow, more people rely on the same wells, which tends to draw down the aquifer level.

In a balanced water cycle, groundwater levels may drop during summer demand, and rise as winter demand falls off, and more rain percolates down into the soil to replenish the aquifer. Growth puts pressure on aquifers. Another major pressure point is climate change. With longer dry seasons, and shorter more intense wet seasons, aquifers don’t recover as well. Thus, year over year, the level in the aquifer drops, which leads to uncertainty.

Related: As another round of logging wraps up in Nanaimo’s watershed, advocates say it’s time for longterm solutions

Chadwick: What’s an example of a municipality that is reliant on groundwater?

Sims: Lantzville, Qualicum, and many of the regional district water systems are those that have a lot of reliance on groundwater. North Cedar is another one.

Chadwick: How do you keep Jump Lake full?

Sims: There’s a bathtub drain at the bottom of the lake where we control the release, and when we come into the rainy season we have some spillway gates that we drop down in case of flash floods in the wintertime. 

Coming into the spring, we start to raise those gates up and that helps raise the level of the dam. And then we turn around and draw it down again from early summer through to the end of fall.

Chadwick: How much is Nanaimo dependent on snowpack for its hydrology?

Sims: It’s interesting, the last two years with the La Niña cycle, we’ve had tremendous amounts of snow not only in town but in the mountains and this past year it was fairly late in the season when it came. We like it because it gives us a measure of comfort, that’s free storage up on the hills, right? As it melts it comes down slowly and we can store it.

I remember in 2015 I used the term “wintertime drought” because back then, at the top of the mountains we had six or eight inches of snow. And typically we’d get six or eight feet. But there was still rain, so we were just a little bit more conservative and started storing water earlier that year—like in February or March as opposed to March or April. Our target is always to have Jump Lake full by the end of June. In these drought years, we make sure it’s full by the beginning of June.

Chadwick: In the worst-case scenario of having a drought that lasts until the end of October, what are some of the tools that Nanaimo can use? Is it just a matter of just begging people to reduce their use?

Sims: Even in advance of the province declaring the drought and raising that level of concern, we put in an elevated level of restrictions asking people to be more conscientious and do some voluntary measures — let their lawns go brown, that sort of thing.

Essentially we’re aligned with all the municipalities and the Regional District of Nanaimo in defining how we have water restriction stages, so we automatically go to Stage 2 on May 1, just to get people in the habit of being conservation-minded. 

The next stage is Stage 3, so that is voluntarily going out and getting some public education out there and asking people to be conservative and avoid an outright watering ban, which is Stage 4.

It’s a very moderate, careful and measured approach. So a few weeks ago we said we’re going to Stage 3. We asked people to voluntarily conserve and we saw a drop in peak day use, and that was a good thing.

There’s no real correlation between how we define watering restrictions and how the province defines drought, but those are often conflated in the public’s mind — “Oh the province is at a Stage 5, we should stop all watering.”

We’re monitoring water levels in the reservoir daily, and if that lowering of our water level starts to drop more than we are comfortable with — if the degree of decline is such that we project too-low levels — then we’ll kick into Stage 4, an outright watering ban. That’s the tool we have.

Chadwick: So it sounds like we’re in a pretty good place, actually.

Sims: Nanaimo’s extremely conservative with water use as it is. We have a really robust water system, but we [also] use it really wisely. The conservation mindset that was put in place 30 years ago is starting to pay dividends today. It’s amazing, it’s absolutely gob-smacking.

In the 1993 election, a whole number of councillors, including a well-loved mayor Joy Leach, all lost their seats because they […] shifted the burden of the water system from property taxes to water rates. 

So if you use the water, you pay for the water, and the paying of that rate covers the cost of operating and maintaining and building the system. That set us up in 1993 for where we are today.

In the late 2000s, this was seen as the best practice, but we were ahead of that curve back in the ’90s. We were ahead of the curve by putting [city-run] meters into everybody’s property. All of those things set us up for success.

Then in the mid-2000s we really started ramping up the water rates to pay for the infrastructure we knew we would have to build over the following 50 years, and that’s really contributed to conservation.

Today, we’re using the same amount of water on a daily basis that we were using in the mid-1990s. Thirty years later — 35,000 more people — same water usage. Like, holy cow.

A bar chart of City of Nanaimo water usage rates from 1980 to 2022 show the effect of various policies. The spike in 2021 was due to the heat dome, says Mike Squire, water resources manager at the City of Nanaimo.Image submitted by the City of Nanaimo
A bar chart of City of Nanaimo water usage rates from 1980 to 2022 show the effect of various policies. The spike in 2021 was due to the heat dome, says Mike Squire, water resources manager at the City of Nanaimo. Image submitted by the City of Nanaimo

At the time when I started my role [as the City’s water resources manager] in 2007, we were going to have to augment or build a new dam by the year 2022. Now, we’ve just gone through our conservation trends and climate change and we don’t have to build a new dam until 2060.

So we’ve delayed having to build a new dam by over 30 years. It’s staggering. So when I say Nanaimo’s in pretty good shape, even in the midst of this drought, that’s what is behind it. It’s not just that we’re lucky this year. It’s been decades of careful stewardship and management on the part of the citizens and the councils.

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