Has engineered stormwater doomed BC’s waterways?

Has engineered stormwater doomed BC’s waterways?

Courtenay Councillor Wendy Morin (left) and Comox Councillor Stephanie McGowan listen to Tim Ennis speak about Kus Kus Sum / George Le Masurier photo

Has engineered stormwater doomed BC’s waterways?


As population growth continues unrestrained and subsequent urban development expands the dimension of impervious surfaces, an increasing volume of polluted stormwater runoff will poison British Columbia’s waters, local species and natural ecosystems.

It sounds like a doomsday prediction, and according to the keynote speaker at a recent provincial conference on water stewardship it’s going to take a major change in local government thinking to avert this disaster.

Bill Derry, one of the Pacific Northwest’s best known experts on stormwater management, delivered this keynote message recently to an audience of more than 200 British Columbia streamkeepers, local government engineers and elected officials and others. Derry spoke April 3 at the second Vancouver Island Symposium on water stewardship organized by The Partnership for Water Sustainability in B.C.

“Put the forest back”

Before any development occurred in B.C., soils and natural vegetation in forests soaked up rainwater, filtered it and slowly released it into streams that flow into larger bodies of water. But in cities, where nature has been covered with impermeable surfaces, rainwater flows along streets where it picks up toxic chemicals and carries them unfiltered into water systems through gutters and underground pipes.

To protect or restore water quality in developed areas is a complicated problem, but Derry said the solution is quite simple: “Put the forest back.”

That’s impossible, of course, yet alternatives do exist.

Fifty years ago, Scottish landscape architect Ian McHarg proposed using natural systems in urban planning. His 1969 book Design With Nature was a guide toward what we call green infrastructure today; the use of rain gardens and infiltration galleries.

Getting local government engineers to implement green infrastructure that protects or restores water quality in developed areas will take massive and relentless public pressure on local governments.

“Tweaking current systems and practices isn’t enough,” he said. “Major change is required, and governments can’t do it. They won’t do it unless we push them.”

Derry said government engineers and elected officials are reluctant to shift from managing stormwater with curbs and gutters toward source control — managing rain where it falls — out of fear of lawsuits and insurance liabilities.

And local governments don’t believe people will maintain rain gardens or other green infrastructure on their properties, he said.

“So we have to challenge old ideas at chamber forums and talk to decision-makers,” he said. “Change will only and always comes when motivated people talk to other people.”

Derry was one of several speakers at the conference who spoke of the benefits of designing municipal systems that attempt to mimic nature. Others spoke of studies that show green spaces and urban streams improve people’s mental health, and are aesthetically pleasing.

Jody Watson, supervisor of environmental planning and initiatives for the Capital Regional District, echoed Derry’s message that public pressure can effect change. Watson is also the past chair of the Bowker Creek Initiative, a successful restoration of a major waterway running through three municipalities in the Victoria area.

Because local governments had given up on Bowker Creek, more and more of it was being buried and channelized.

But widespread community pressure raised the creek to the regional district’s No. 3 priority. Consultants had to convince local engineers of the value of restoring and daylighting the creek. Some staff engineers had rigidly opposed daylighting the creek.

“Sometimes you have to just wait for somebody to retire,” Watson said.

Derry urged conference attendees to champion better stormwater practices on several fronts.

— No expansion of urban growth boundaries. Increase urban density and “save the best of the rest,” he said.

— Require government agencies to preserve forests, not just slow down development. “There should be no net loss of forest cover,” he said.

— Ban toxins such as zinc on vehicle tires, copper on brakes, phosphorous and the micro-plastics from single-use bags and water bottles at the local, provincial and federal level.

Deery cautioned his audience not to expect instant results.

“This isn’t something that will happen overnight,” he said. “But we need to amp up the seriousness of the discussions.”








Comox Valley Regional District Senior Engineer Marc Rutten spoke to the conference about the Comox Lake Watershed Protection Plan. It’s a wide-ranging effort that involves multiple landowners and will address issues of turbidity and hydrological changes from logging activities. The watershed is the only source of drinking water for 50,000 residents.

Tim Ennis, the executive director of the Comox Valley Land Trust, spoke about the Comox Valley Conservation Partnership, one of six such groups in the province. The partnership has a unique focus on local government, and speaks with one voice on conservation issues, growth and urban forest strategies. Ennis also talked about the Kus-Kus-Sum project, which he said is more about reconciliation than restoration. “Ten acres of steel and concrete is a daunting” restoration project. But he called the recovery of the K’omoks Estuary a “fantastic model for success.”

Al Fraser and Marvin Kamenz of the Town of Comox, and Christine Hodgson of the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society, spoke about the relationship between the town and the streamkeepers. Hodgson said over the last 13 years, the streamkeepers have raised about $300,000 ($100,000 in-kind) for in-stream work to improve fish habitat. The town has roughly matched the group’s fundraising. The streamkeepers also do annual smolt counts and public education for neighboring residents.




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These environment stories from 2018 could give us hope

These environment stories from 2018 could give us hope

Perseverance Creek  |  George Le Masurier photo

These environment stories from 2018 could give us hope


Climate science reports released in 2018 all pointed to impending catastrophes unless humankind can pull off some miraculous reversal of climatological trends and its own bad behavior.

In just the last year, huge wildfires raged out of control, Antarctica lost three trillion more tonnes of ice, extreme heat waves warned of an eventual Hothouse Earth by 2040 and droughts and intense storms have become commonplace. Climate change could even cause a global beer shortage.

But not all the environment news in 2018 was depressing. There was good news to savor, some of it originating right here at home.

Comox Valley

The Comox Valley Lands Trust is purchasing a 55-acre parcel at the top of Morrison Creek, and announced plans to eventually acquire and conserve the waterway’s entire 550-acre headwaters. This is important for a variety of reasons: Morrison Creek has lively and thriving aquatic life, including several salmon species, it feeds the Puntledge River and the K’omoks Estuary and it’s the only stream in the valley whose headwaters remain intact (undeveloped) and pristine.

The Cumberland Forest Society is currently negotiating to preserve another 93 hectares (230 acres) of the Cumberland Forest, mostly wetlands and key riparian areas along Perseverance Creek. Since it formed in 2000, the society has conserved 110 hectares (271 acres).

Aerial view of some of the Morrison Creek headwaters — photo courtesy of the Comox Valley Lands Trust

On Dec. 19, the Comox Valley Lands Trust announced that Father Charles Brandt had signed a covenant to conserve his 27-acre Hermitage on the Oyster River. The covenant means the property “will be protected in perpetuity for the benefit of all things wild.” Brandt has told Decafnation he intends to donate his property to the Comox Valley Regional District as an undeveloped public park.

In a process mired in missteps and lawsuits, the CVRD finally denied an application by the 3L Development company that would have created more urban sprawl, increased long-term infrastructure liabilities for taxpayers and despoiled a critical area. But an outstanding lawsuit means this story isn’t over.

The Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC and the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society completed an Ecological Accounting Process document, which shows the value of the waterway to the Town of Comox for stormwater conveyance. It’s the first EAP in BC on a creek flowing through multiple jurisdictions, and shows how all stakeholders must have a common goal in order to prevent the death of another fish-bearing stream.

Many of the candidates who sought public office this fall — and most who were elected — endorsed the passage of new development policies that permit and encourage infill development. This is important to minimize urban sprawl, and maximize utilization of existing infrastructure, thus preserving more rural areas and natural ecological systems.

Thanks to Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley, more people know the serious health hazards of poor air quality caused by particulates in smoke from wood burning devices. And local governments are responding with bands on wood burning devices in new homes and incentives to eliminate or upgrade existing ones.

Pacific Northwest

The sad sight of a mother orca carrying a dead calf around for weeks, as if to show humans what tragedies they are inflicting on the Earth’s other inhabitants, has sparked some positive change. Just not in BC, yet. Gov. Jay Inslee struck a task force that has recommended steps for orca recovery and the governor has earmarked over a billion dollars for the plan, which includes a ban on whale-watching tourism.

British Columbians got a sniff last summer of what climate change means for our future. One of the worst wildfire summers blanketed the south coast with smoke, haze and hazardous air quality. And with summers getting hotter and drier (it’s not just your imagination), wildfires will increase. It’s another step — albeit an unfortunate one — to wider spread public acknowledgement of climate change and the urgency of initiatives to maintain and improve our air quality.

The NDP government adopted a climate action plan this year calls for more electric vehicles and charging stations, requires all new buildings to be net-zero energy ready by 2032, diverts organic waste and other recyclables from landfills, while boosting the carbon tax and producing more hydroelectric power. It’s been criticized as being “just talk” and not going far enough, but the plan at least provides a blueprint for future climate action policies provincially and federally.


Green energy is on the rise around the world. We had the largest annual increase in global renewable generation capacity in 2017 (most recent data), accounting for 70 percent of all additions to global power capacity. New solar photovoltaic capacity outsripped additions in coal, natural gas and nuclear power combined. As of 2016, renewable energy accounted for 18.2 percent of global total final energy consumption (most recent data), and modern renewables representing 10.4 percent.

Brooklyn Creek flows into Comox Bay — George Le Masurier photo

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development thinks that global economic growth has peaked. They worry about the slowdown, but it’s good news for the planet. That’s the view of the new Degrowth movement, a theory that first world countries should plan for economic contraction in order to achieve a just and sustainable world.

Carbon emissions are declining, according to BP’s statistical review of world energy. Ukraine showed the greatest decline in 2017 of around 10 percent, due to dramatic reduction in coal usage. Unfortunately, Canada was one of the worst nations (22nd). Canada actually increased emissions by 3.4 percent, contributing the ninth largest share of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere behind China, the US and Japan.

Community-based renewable energy projects lead the way in reducing greenhouse gases both in Canada and around the world. Scotland’s Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES) provides communities, businesses and other organizations advice and funding to create local and community energy projects. And, even the province of Alberta has a Community Generation Program for small-scale ventures into wind, biomass, hydro and solar.

And here’s a video that shows more reasons for hope. The question is, are we moving fast enough? And what more could we do?








International Panel on Climate Change
Click here

Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
Click here

Global Carbon Project
Click here

National Climate Assessment
Click here

Renewables 2018 Global Status Report
Click here

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
High uncertainty weighing on global growth
Click here

Click here

BP statistical review of World Energy 2018
Click here

Community-based renewable energy projects
Click here and here

The story of 2018 was climate change
Click here



Brooklyn Creek: it’s surviving, but faces old and new threats from upstream development

Brooklyn Creek: it’s surviving, but faces old and new threats from upstream development

Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society President Robert Deane at the mouth of the stream     Photo by George Le Masurier

Brooklyn Creek: it’s surviving, but faces old and new threats from upstream development


This is the third in a series of articles

The Comox Valley is fortunate to have several waterways in its urban environment that support salmon and other fish. But it also has many that are either dead or an aquatic life support.

Brooklyn Creek in Comox had an usually big run of salmon two years ago, but it normally can only manage to sustain a smattering of fish. But it does still have fish, primarily thanks to an active group of stream keeper volunteers, who have grand plans to revitalize the creek with a pathway from Comox Bay to Courtenay.

They face difficult challenges from multiple jurisdictional governance, an uncertain future of the creeks’ great asset and a powerful developer operating in its headwaters.

The problems for Brooklyn Creek begin at its headwaters

Until about 30 years ago, most of the rainwater that fell in the natural forest at the top of Ryan Road Hill was soaked into the ground, about 50 percent. Some evaporated back into the atmosphere, about 40 percent.

And about 10 percent trickled down the surface of the southeast slope toward Comox Harbour, forming many tiny tributaries that eventually came together as Brooklyn Creek.

It would have taken days, perhaps weeks, for a drop of surface water in the creek to travel from the top of the hill to Comox Harbour. The water that had soaked into the ground wouldn’t have reached the harbour for years.

But then the Crown Isle golf course and residential community was built by the Silverado Corporation, followed by the Cascadia Mall and other commercial development further up the slope. With the trees and natural vegetation replaced by impervious surfaces, the hydrology changed.

Map of Brooklyn CreekNow, only about 30 percent of the rain evaporates, and only 15 percent or less soaks into the ground. That leaves more than 55 percent of the rainfall to runoff from streets and roofs and cause flooding, if it isn’t somehow managed.

So Crown Isle captures this excess rainfall through storm drains opening into large underground pipes, and dumps it all into Brooklyn Creek. Lower down the slope to Comox Harbour, the Town of Comox does the same thing.

There are, in fact, 24 stormwater pipes emptying into Brooklyn Creek today, carrying water contaminated with oil and heavy metals left by automobiles, pesticides, herbicides and animal feces.

And the pipes gush toxic water at such a high volume and fast rate after rainfalls that, without the efforts of the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society, the stream today would be dead.

That it can still sustain a small spawn of fish today is a miracle.

Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society

“That the stream can sometimes support salmon and trout in an urban environment is just magic,” Robert Deane, president of the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society, told Decafnation. The group was formerly known as the Brooklyn Creek Stream Keepers.

But it’s more than magic, it’s long hours of hard work by a dedicated group of volunteers. For the last 12 years, society volunteers have done in-stream work on the lower creek section within the Town of Comox to create new fish habitat.

The volunteers have replaced what was destroyed by erosion from raging flows after rainfalls or by unwitting property owners along the creek who engaged in “stream cleaning.” They hauled in logs every year to create fish passages, rock dams, pools and riffles to mimic naturally occurring spawning grounds.

They have slowly rerouted the walking paths that follow the creek from its mouth up to Noel Avenue, near the private elementary school, to move them away from the creek and allow more natural vegetation to cover its banks. Fish need shade and cool water temperatures.

They do an annual smolt count to monitor the health of the creek for wildlife.

And they launched a new program this year on Earth Day to tackle the invasive species, such as English Ivy, that are crowding out natural vegetation. The stream keepers spent two days hacking away invasive growth and only cleared 50 metres of the stream. But their work filled a two-ton truck, donated by the Town of Comox to haul away the debris.

“The town has been a good partner,” Deane said. “Our aims and the town’s aims are aligned.”

To curtail flooding and downstream erosion of creekside properties, the town spent nearly $2 million in the early 2000s to install a flow diverter near Pritchard Road with a threshold gate. After heavy rainfalls, as much as 70 percent of the stormwater gets diverted into a pipe that discharges directly into Comox Harbor near Filberg Park.

But both Deane and another stream keeper, Larry Jefferson, suspect it’s not working as well as it used to, taking flow out of the creek that it needs in the drier summer months to sustain life.

“The diverter requires maintenance, and it soon will have to be rehabilitated,” Jefferson said.

The stream keepers apply for grants every year to support their projects and the town usually matches them. Combined, they have spent over $100,000 in the last 10 years, he said.

All of this work on the bottom end has made the creek more resilient to the upstream issues in Courtenay and Area B.

A multi-jurisdictional dilemma

Most people think of Brooklyn Creek as a stream that flows through Comox. That’s probably because the Comox section is mostly visible and offers a creekside pathway down through Mack Laing Park to its mouth into the harbour.

But Brooklyn Creek actually starts in Courtenay at Crown Isle and then travels through Area B on the northwest side of Anderton Road and across Birkdale Farm, before crossing Guthrie Road into Comox.

Brooklyn's three jurisdictionsAll three local governments don’t necessarily have the same attitude toward the creek, or urban creeks in general. And that makes it hard to create a common 100-year plan for the entire watershed.

In August, the Partnership for Water Sustainability in B.C. (PWSBC), released a Ecological Accounting Process (EAP) report that showed the monetary value of Brooklyn Creek to the Town of Comox in terms of its stormwater conveyance system — to oversimplify, what the town would have to spend if the creek didn’t exist.

Tim Pringle, chair of the EAP initiative for PWSBC, says application of the EAP provides local governments with a way to select solutions for drainage infrastructure that draw from both nature’s assets and engineered works.

“This would accomplish two desired outcomes: protect watershed health (hydrological functions); and achieve a balanced approach  to funding life-cycle costs,” he said.

The Brooklyn Creek EAP report praises the cooperation between the town and the watershed society, and notes that Courtenay and the CVRD do not have Brooklyn Creek management plans.

“It’s the first EAP in B.C. for a natural asset that resides in multiple jurisdictions,” Vanessa Scott, a member of the watershed society, told Decafnation. “It was a pilot project showing the way forward for municipalities to adapt to climate change.”

The EAP report measures the creek’s value in terms of property values, green space, stormwater conveyance, volunteers hours and grant funding. It was presented to Comox Council in August.

But when the council was asked at the end of the presentation to create a Brooklyn Creekshed plan, no council member would make the motion, Scott said. The council instead asked staff to make a recommendation sometime this fall.

The main problem, as Deane sees it, is that the problems created for the creek by Crown Isle and other headwaters developments don’t impact anyone in Courtenay. All the impacts are felt by downstream property owners in Area B and Comox.

“I would like to have some Crown Isle residents, or just Courtenay residents, join our group,” Deane said.

Scott says people should not assume their local governments are looking after their streams.

“The lack of a management plan for upper and middle Brooklyn Creek threatens all the work done in Comox,” she said. “Comox is a stakeholder in Courtenay development, but there’s no multi-party management plan.”

Birkdale Farm

Guy SimGuy Sim runs a dairy farm on about 190 acres, most of it bordered by Guthrie, Knight and Anderton roads. It’s a family farm started by his grandparents, George and Mabel Laban, in 1920. His father, Alex Sim, took it over in 1950 and passed it on to Guy in 1970.

The farm acts as a giant sponge that soaks up some of the creek’s water into the ground, and provides the riparian vegetation around the creek that fish need.

Brooklyn Creek cuts a Z-shaped swath across the main farmland, flooding portions of his field many times every year. It didn’t used to flood so often.

The creek used to only flood after an rare heavy rain. Now — after the development of Crown Isle — it takes much less rain to cause flooding. Sim said even a half-inch of rain causes flows in the creek to breach its banks.

In one spot where a farm road for moving equipment crosses the creek, there used to be two 36-inch culverts that handled peak flows. Sims added a third 36-inch culvert to handle the increase in creek volume coming from the deforestation of Crown Isle and Lannan Forest, and they still overflow.

The flooding kills his grass if the water lingers more than a day or two, and after a flood swans and ducks fly in to eat the submerged grass when it’s easy to pull up.

He needs the grass to feed herd of about 230 Ayrshire cows. He has to purchase additional feed to get through the winter.

And when it floods, Sim can’t let his cow graze in those areas because their hooves would tear up the soggy ground. Nor can he move his equipment in such soft ground.

And it’s not just flooding that causes Sim hardships. Garbage like plastics and other debris get into the creek and spill out onto his grazing land.

Sim has fought with local governments for years, He’s asked for a pond where the creek enters at the northwestern portion of this property, something a consultant report recommended many years ago. But it was never done.

Facing new threats

Despite the Crown Isle development and the loss in 2008 of the Lannan Forest, a 40-acre parcel of second-growth trees adjacent to Longland’s Golf Course, which is a secondary headwaters of Brooklyn Creek, the stream is surviving, if barely.

But there are new threats on the horizon.

Silverado has purchased Longlands property. The Crown Isle developer says they have no plans to redevelop the par-three golf course, but a future development there would pile additional pressure on the creek.

And Guy Sim is nearing retirement age, but he has no family to take over the farm. The Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society worries about what might happen to this prime land in the Agricultural Land Reserve if Sim decides to sell.

Sim himself doesn’t know what he will do when that time comes.

“I’m working on a plan,” he told Decafnation.

Chris Hilliar, a former Comox officer with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said Sim’s farm is “the best thing Brooklyn Creeks has going for it.”

“It would be a travesty if that place is ever developed,” he said.

Looking ahead

Robert Deane, president of the Brooklyn Watershed Society, says there is a vision that could save Brooklyn Creek from dying the “death by a thousand cuts” that has killed other urban streams, like Golf Creek.

Deane and others envision extending the walking trail along the creek all the way through Sim’s farm, along the right of way next to Idien’s Way and into Crown Isle.

When the Comox Valley Regional District installed the new Hudson trunk sewer line, from Crown Isle along Parry Place and Idien’s Way, the steam keepers convinced them to set it off to the side of the road and create a right of way for an eventual trail. The creek follows the same route.

“That may seem contrary to the objective of keeping the creek natural,” Deane said. “But if people use the pathway and see the creek, then they will own it and be supportive.”

“The Tsolum River was brought back life,” Deane said. “All we have to do is give them good, clean water, and the fish will do the rest.”


“Brooklyn Creek is a small creekshed whose hydrology and ecological services have been altered and degraded by decades of land use impacts,” — Tim Pringle in the preface to Assessing the Worth of Ecological Services Using the Ecological Accounting Process for Watershed Assessment: Brooklyn Creek Demonstration Application in the Comox Valley.




Ecological Accounting Process — “The EAP approach begins by first recognizing the importance of a stream in a natural state and then asking: how can we maintain those ecological values while allowing the stream to be used for drainage,” says Jim Dumont, Engineering Applications Authority with the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC.

“If communities are to truly benefit from use of nature’s assets to provide vital community infrastructure services, then two issues must first be recognized as  being impediments to changes in practice.”

“The first issue is the widespread lack of understanding of the relationship between flow-duration and stream (watershed) health.”

“The second issue is the widespread application of a standard of practice that has led to the current situation of degraded streams, and that has little connection to real-world hydrology.”




JOIN — You can join the Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society or donate to them.

DONATE — The Comox Valley Conservation Partnership accepts members and donations. The CVCP was formed in 2008, after concern was raised that there was no regional plan in the Comox Valley to prioritize and protect sensitive ecosystems on private land.  The CVCP brings together local community-based groups and other stakeholders to support their projects and provide a voice for the value of conservation in our natural areas.  The CVCP is administered by a program coordinator under the direction of the Comox Valley Lands Trust




HYDROLOGIC CYCLE — The endless circulation of water. From the beginning of time when water first appeared, it has been constant in quantity and continuously in motions. The same water molecules have been transferred time and time again from the oceans and the land into the atmosphere by evaporation, dropped on the land as precipitation and transferred back to the sea by rivers and ground water.

LOW-IMPACT DEVELOPMENT(LID) — The systems and practices that use or mimic natural processes that result in the infiltration, evapotranspiration or use of stormwater in order to protect water quality and associated aquatic habitat.

RAIN GARDEN — A miniature wetland in a residential setting, lower than the adjacent grade to collect rainwater from roofs, driveways or streets, thus allowing infiltration into the ground.

RIPARIAN AREAS REGULATION — Riparian areas link water to land. They border streams, lakes, and wetlands. The blend of streambed, water, trees, shrubs and grasses in a riparian area provides fish habitat, and directly influences it. Read more here

STREAMSIDE PROTECTION REGULATION — A fish protection act preceding the Riparian Areas Regulation. Read more here

RUNOFF — Excessive rain or snowmelt that produces overland flow to creeks and ditches. Runoff is visible flow of water in rivers, creeks and lakes as the water stored in the basin drains out.

TRANSPIRATION — Water vapour emitted from a plant. Every day an actively growing plant transpires five to 10 times as much water as it can hold at once.