Ladysmith became an instant town in 1898 when coal baron James Dunsmuir moved buildings to the picturesque location to accommodate a sizable workforce. The town (incorporated in 1904) was in an idyllic setting sloping to a harbour teeming with shellfish.
Today the idea of instant development is not the way anyone wants to see growth happen in the town. But a cohesive town plan has long been hampered by railway and industrial interests that cut Ladysmith off from easily accessing its own harbour. As major plans for major waterfront development, new housing and new wastewater facilities are being rolled out, residents have something to say about water use and environment.
Some townsfolk including Erik Piikkila, along with Greg Roberts, and Scott Akenhead have created the Cowichan Valley North Watershed Conservation Group. They want an alliance with other local associations (such as Koksilah, Cowichan, Shawnigan and Chemainus) and are researching best practices from other centres such as Okanagan Basin Water Authority, the Capital Regional District, Seattle, and Portland. A recent CVRD initiative to bring the local groups together was cancelled – ironically – due to snow.
Piikkila wants to use the impending May election as an opportunity to get some straight answers from local candidates in the Nanaimo-North Cowichan riding and party leaders on what they see as primary watershed issues here and what action they would take. He will get the answers back this week and will be sharing these questions with watershed conservation groups, environmental organizations, and other NGOs.
Watersheds require careful management due the changing climate, says Piikkila. “It’s absolutely critical,” said Piikkila, who has studied forest ecology in Finland as well as B.C. and Washington State. “With climate change we don’t have the snow pack anymore, so the peak precipitation we’re getting is rain not snow that would have stayed on the ground longer and melted slowly. “The snowpack we used to have extended into the summertime. Now at the end of March it just flatlines until the rains come in November.”
Piikkila is concerned about the town’s capabilities to supply water for new development. “We’re not opposed to development, just smart development. Because it’s private land it’s a black hole for data.” Forestry practices are the key to healthy watersheds, he said, pointing to the importance of biological legacies such as fallen logs and moss mats as sponges for water. “Hopefully those will be lifeboats for all kinds of wildlife,” he said. “Here this is private land and you have to go cap in hand to the forest company. They own the water that we’re drinking, but we’re still on the hook for creating filtration systems.”
The town’s long term capital plan will ensure adequate supply for today’s residents and any potential future growth, says Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone With the current storage in Holland and Stocking Lakes, and the addition of the new water filtration plant required by Island Health, we have sufficient supply for about 15,000 people,” he said. “Council would not authorize any development that would put water supply at risk.”
Ladysmith is changing its development cost charges program to ensure the costs of any infrastructure is borne by new development, says the mayor. “Many residents don’t welcome large-scale developments, but the reality is that market driven growth is slow and will never be authorized beyond the capacity of our infrastructure to serve existing residents,” said Stone. “Even if we were to achieve the abnormally high growth rates seen in the mid 2000s, we would only be adding maybe a couple of hundred water users per year.”
Despite local assurances, Piikkila and many other citizens are pushing for a cohesive approach to protecting watersheds throughout the region. “All of these efforts are inching along without much momentum in each watershed while the piecemeal dynamics (watershed by watershed) and the status quo hasn’t changed,” said Piikkila. “Even though two of the six main watersheds (Ladysmith & Saltair, Chemainus, Bonsall, Cowichan, Koksilah, and Shawnigan) have some sort of plan, having a plan does not guarantee progress, implementation, results, or positive changes in the watersheds.”