British Columbia

Gulf Islands under some of the worst water shortages ever, authorities say

After this summer’s unprecedented heat wave across B.C., authorities in the Gulf Islands say the season’s drought is one of the worst they’ve experienced in recent memory.

Salt Spring Island still battling to find solutions to manage growing problem

Gulf Island drought levels are some of the worst in recent history following the recent unprecedented heat wave in B.C. (Meghan McKee/North Salt Spring Waterworks District)

After this summer's unprecedented heat wave across B.C., authorities in the Gulf Islands say the season's drought is one of the worst they've experienced in recent memory.

"This is yet another year where we have a lot of concerns," said Peter Luckham, chair of the Islands Trust Council.

He said he's noticed very low groundwater levels for this time of year on Thetis Island, where he lives.

For years, freshwater shortages have plagued the Gulf Islands because of the warming climate, and they're of particular concern during dry spells because most of the islands' water supply comes from rainfall.

"We're getting lots of [reports] from residents ... that their wells have been in short supply and they're worried for the full-on summer," said Luckham.

He added that once levels in wells become critically low, many people will have to truck water in from Vancouver Island, which can be expensive. 

Luckham said residents "across the board" on all the Gulf Islands are concerned, and the best thing they can do now is to practice "really proactive water management all through the year."

Drought conditions on Salt Spring Island similar to 2015

On Salt Spring Island, the most populous of the islands, authorities worry residents may soon have to move to Stage 4 watering restrictions, which would confine water to domestic use at very specific hours.

"I've been on the board five years and so far this is the most severe conditions we've faced," said Michael McAllister, chair of the North Salt Spring Waterworks District, which provides drinking water from two main lakes to around 5,000 — or half — of the island's residents.

This summer St. Mary Lake, one of Salt Spring Island's main water sources, has seen some its lowest levels ever. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Data from the waterworks district shows water levels in St. Mary Lake and Maxwell Lake dropped to some of their lowest points recorded for spring and early summer. A brief rainfall then raised the levels in late June, but not nearly enough.

A release from the waterworks district says Stage 4 watering restrictions were last implemented in 2015, and by the end of that summer landscaping was damaged and school and community sports fields were "in very poor condition."

The level of St. Mary Lake didn't recover until October that year, the release explained. 

No easy solutions, district says

McAllister said the waterworks district is "looking at all avenues" to better manage water levels, but is unable to ask for provincial grants because of a government policy prohibiting improvement districts from receiving direct funding.

In light of this, the district has been exploring other options for water governance the last few years. 

Because water services on Salt Spring Island are currently provided by multiple agencies including the waterworks district, the Capital Regional District (CRD) and a number of smaller local water regulation authorities, it could be difficult to co-ordinate a solution.

This year, an independent water service optimization Study funded by the B.C. government recommended the waterworks district consolidate services with the CRD but remain an independent department protected by legal agreements. This would allow local residents to continue making their own management decisions. 

Gary Holman, the island's CRD electoral area director, said that solution wouldn't work, as "the CRD does not agree with independence."

"But we do understand and agree around the concerns about [losing] local control, and we want to discuss that... . Hopefully we'll continue meetings to address these concerns," Holman said.

McAllister said he's disappointed in the CRD's response, and it might mean the waterworks district will have to look at manually raising water levels in St. Mary Lake. 

"Property owners [along the lake] would have to be compensated because they'd be losing a portion of their land," he explained. 

When it comes to the other Gulf Islands, Islands Trust Council chair Peter Luckham said many of them are too small to consolidate services. 


Adam van der Zwan is a journalist for CBC, based in Victoria, B.C. You can send him a news tip at

With files from Megan Thomas.