Englishman River Watershed
Through a referendum in 2008, just 53% of voters in the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN) voted in favour of studies being undertaken to understand the local water supply. Now, the entire regional district is benefitting from new research that highlights the critical role of groundwater in the lower Englishman River watershed.
The Englishman River watershed extends between the Mount Arrowsmith ridge (elevation 1818 m) and the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island’s east coast. Its drainage area is 324 km2. The City of Parksville and surrounding rural areas rely on the Englishman River watershed for their fresh water—it is a source of both surface water and groundwater.
In 2003, maps produced by the Vancouver Island Water Resource Vulnerability Project indicated the Englishman River watershed’s high vulnerability to water shortage due to unprecedented growth in the RDN. The maps also identified an information gap around ground water. This concern was highlighted because area residents typically rely on their own wells for their water supply. Without groundwater mapping, it was not known if the Englishman River’s low summer flow was sustainable in light of increasing populations.
In 2008, the Mid-Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society (MVIHES) proposed a multi-phase research project to learn about the levels, flows, and quality of groundwater in the lower Englishman River watershed. The Society suggested that the research would result in more informed planning decisions, ultimately protecting the Englishman River from mismanagement that could jeopardize the watershed’s rich ecosystems.
Established in 1998, the MVIHES undertakes assessment, habitat restoration, communication, and education projects. It also provides resources to promote smart water use, improve land use practices, and assist landowners in acquiring grants, conservation covenants, or other incentives for watershed protection.
For the Englishman River watershed project, the Society worked with Dr. Gilles Wendling, a hydrogeologist with over twenty years’ experience and particular expertise in assessing drinking water resources and protecting groundwater resources.
In August 2009, using simple, proven technologies and methods, the project team began collecting data on the presence and behaviour of aquifers in the lower Englishman River watershed. Information collected included stream flow rates; surface water and groundwater temperatures; selected physical and chemical parameters (e.g., pH, electrical conductivity); soil stratigraphy (e.g. thickness of soil layers, depth to bedrock); and water levels in residential wells. The study covered a 2-year period in order to assess the seasonal fluctuations of both the stream levels and the groundwater levels.
Dr. Wendling’s team stressed public understanding and management of the watershed would be vital to the project’s success.
“People need to be involved and educated to feel that they are part of the equation in matters as important as water. If a change of behaviour is required, it is much better if people understand why. While federal and provincial governments are slow to act on groundwater protection, people can support local governments by helping out and taking ‘ownership’ of their watersheds.” - Faye Smith, Project Manager
To facilitate a high level of community involvement, well owners were invited to offer their wells for monitoring—fifteen of the fifty-plus monitored wells were private wells of residents Community volunteers were also involved in gathering information (such as temperature, pH, electrical conductivity, and total dissolved solids) from the Englishman River. This research lasted until September 2011. MVIHES and its project team also delivered presentations to the public and representatives from the Ministry of Environment, Regional District of Nanaimo, and Vancouver Island University.
Following initial research, the project set out to define an image of the subsurface of the lower Englishman River watershed. This subsequent phase of the project defined the high and low elevations of the water table by measuring the water elevation in ponds and streams, and where groundwater daylights. Additional field work, which involved observing the physical characteristics of the river banks and the river bed, combined with the review of well logs and drafting of water table cross sections, identified aquifers that were previously unknown.
From the research, the team was able to estimate that during the summer, 30% of the water in the Englishman River is contributed by aquifers. They further estimated that another 30-40% of the summer flow is provided by groundwater from bedrock aquifers; however, further research is required to be conclusive.
Now that there is greater understanding of the importance that the aquifers and their water tables have in providing flow to the Englishman River, action must be taken to ensure the aquifers are not stressed. Dr. Wendling has indicated that designing watershed friendly land developments is critical and can be partly achieved through increasing residential density, building smaller transport systems, and promoting walking.
Dr. Wendling plans further research as a large portion of the lower Englishman River watershed is still not fully understood. The next phase of research will focus on the need for bedrock aquifer mapping; the need for more education, including in schools; and the need for groundwater/watershed protection.
The Real Estate Foundation provided the Mid-Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society with a $15,000 grant in 2009 and a second grant of $10,000 in 2010 for groundwater mapping of the lower Englishman River watershed. This groundwater research and education initiative aligns with the Foundation’s goal to support projects that contribute to resilient, healthy communities and natural environments, now and in the future.
By Sam Brown