Photo by George Le Masurier: Director of Engineering Services, Ryan O’Grady at Courtenay City Hall.
Stormwater management plans in the Comox Valley have historically treated rainwater as waste, something to be collected and disposed of quickly, usually into previously clean streams or directly into the ocean.
Our local governments have commonly relied on hard engineering solutions that employ expensive infrastructure, such as storm drains, catch basins, pipes and ponds.
That approach has removed and altered the source of groundwater that used to recharge our aquifers. And it has left us with polluted streams incapable of supporting aquatic life, shellfish harvesting bans, eroded private and public property, the loss of attractive natural environments and a long-term financial burden we cannot afford.
Comox Valley governments already have more than roughly $400 million in unfunded infrastructure liabilities (even more if the calculation was based on replacement cost), and stormwater systems account for a significant portion of that staggering total. The Town of Comox alone had $160 million in 2012.
And each new regional housing development ultimately adds more to the total because builders pay development cost charges that cover only the costs of installing infrastructure. They pay nothing for ongoing repairs, maintenance and replacment. Taxpayers are saddled with that burden, forever.
Clearly, a new approach is needed.
Forward-thinking municipalities have shifted toward source control, managing rain where it falls through infiltration, evapotranspiration and rainwater harvesting, techniques known as green infrastructure. This improves water quality, reduces flooding and erosion and costs taxpayers less.
To fund this fundamental transformation in stormwater systems, some municipalities have introduced new fees based on the percentage of impervious surfaces on a property, along with corresponding financial incentives to install green infrastructure.
So, given the benefits and cost savings of going green, are Comox Valley municipalities and other local governments rushing to implement green infrastructure? Not exactly.
A 2017 study conducted by the Canadian Freshwater Alliance and Green Communities Canada, which included data from the Comox Valley, found that most municipalities were moving slowly.
“Most communities surveyed are not far advanced in adapting urban landscapes to manage rain where it falls,” according to a Green Communities summary of the study. “Communities appear to be making moderate commitments … in community plans.”
So, what exactly are Comox Valley municipalities doing?
City of Courtenay
Ryan O’Grady, the city’s director of engineering services, will lead the development of an Integrated Stormwater Management Plan (ISMP) in 2019. The plan will encompass strategies for flood mitigation in the downtown core, how to replace traditional engineered infrastructure with green solutions and will, he says, look through a broad lens at regional solutions.
“The ISMP will have an educational component, too, about stormwater systems,” O’Grady told Decafnation. “These will be challenging conversations, but there is a collective desire to change.”
Water and sewer issues have gotten most of every municipalities’ attention up until now, he said. Stormwater is one of the last service areas to focus on.
“Our city has prioritized stormwater lower in the past to deal with drinking water,” O’Grady said. “All staff are looking forward to working on stormwater.”
The city has also shifted its approach to management of assets from reactive to proactive, a move he said came from Chief Administrative Officer David Allen (see separate story).
For example, the city is currently doing a culvert assessment where streams pass under roadways to see they are working properly. Good working culverts are important for fish passage. And the recently renovated upper portion of Fifth Street was designed with rain gardens to test how well they work and the ongoing cost to maintain them.
“We’re learning how to integrate green infrastructure and low-impact development going forward,” he said.
O’Grady intends for the stormwater plan to take a regional view, including discussions about Brooklyn Creek, which originates in Courtenay, flows through regional Area B and empties into Comox Bay.
“There’s a collective desire to collaborate … it would be great to work together,” he said.
The stormwater management plan project is part of a national pilot project to improve Courtenay’s resilience to climate change. The city is one of 72 across Canada chosen to participate.
O’Grady told Decafnation he has already begun contacting representatives from the development community, regional technical staff, stakeholders, elected officials, regulatory agencies, creek and stream stewardship groups and the K’omoks First Nations. The planning will get underway in early 2019.
The city has set aside $110,000 to develop the plan, and will get additional funding assistance from the Municipal Natural Asset Initiative (MNAI), a collective that supports municipalities to better understand, value and manage its natural assets onan equivalent basis with its other infrastructure.
“I look forward to facilitating that conversation with the bigger group,” he said.
Read more at Decafnation.