Saturday, September 02, 2006

Tofino runs out of water
Sept. 1, 2006

Any number of painful lessons can be learned from Tofino’s current water crisis. Accidents happen, but this was no accident. Everyone in town should have seen this coming.
The extreme nature of the crisis is undeniable. Tofino’s economy is almost fully dependent on tourism. Shutting down the town’s accommodation and restaurant services mere days before one of the biggest tourist weekends of the summer is a truly drastic, desperate thing to do.
But while the summer has indeed been hot and dry for much of the Island, Tofino’s crisis was in the works long before now. This is the third summer in a row that Tofino has fretted about its dwinding water supply. That nothing has changed serves as yet another sobering reminder of what happens when communities fail to act.
Tofino acted in its own way, mind you. Two years ago, its citizens voted against improvements that would have brought more water into the town. Reports in the Tofino media from that time speculated that the failure might have been due to voters perceiving a “yes” vote as support for more development.
Had the vote been favourable, the upgrades would have been completed by this summer. That irony must be resonating unpleasantly these days with what has to be an outraged group of tourism operators.
This week came news of a University of Victoria study that concluded B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve is being nibbled away by regional development - the result of a policy shift that put ALR decisions into local hands without considering the province-wide impact.
Then came reports that Tofino had run out of water.
They’re really the same story: More people equals more pressure on resources. Whether it’s farmland or water at risk of disappearing, the cause is ultimately people.
Tofino’s story is, again, a little different, as the town is located in a rainforest known for getting as much as three metres of rain a year. More reservoir capacity alone will solve a lot of what ails Tofino.
That could indeed end up fuelling even more development. But if voting down the 2004 water-improvement referendum was intended as a vote against more development, what got overlooked was that the preceding years of growth had already begun to tap out the Tofino water supply in the summer months.
Tofino’s last water upgrade was 15 years ago. If you’ve been to the town even a handful of times in that period, you’ll know that much has changed in those years.
The town’s year-round population is a modest 1,700, but as many as 22,000 people take up temporary residence during July and August. That’s a whole lot of water flushed and showered away and a significant amount of hotel laundry washed. While Tofino can’t really afford the drain of all that activity on its limited water supply, much of the town pins its hopes on just such an influx of visitors.
In 2004, Tofino council lamented about a hot, dry summer while the town teetered on the brink of a water shortage serious enough that major across-the-board cuts in water use were contemplated. In 2005, council again lamented about a hot, dry summer and added two stages to its previously four-stage water-crisis plan.
This week, while once again lamenting a hot, dry summer, Tofino council invoked Stage Five. All lodging and food-service businesses were ordered shut down by the Labour Day weekend. In the event of a Stage-Six crisis, no water use by anybody will be permitted to ensure a supply for fire-fighting.
Another creek has been dragged into service for some Tofino residents, but they’ve been advised to boil the water from it. The heavily cedar-tinted creek water also has a reputation for staining clothes in the wash, which people first learned about when the water almost ran out in 2004.
Such inconveniences are nothing compared to the losses facing the Tofino tourism industry this week, which is reeling from the edict to close up shop. With just three days notice of the closure before the Labour Day crowds were to arrive, businesses will be on the hook for any number of costs related to cancelled trips, sub-par vacations and various other disappointments. (God help any hotel that had booked a wedding for the weekend.)
In the short term, Tofino merely has to come up with a way to catch more rain in the fall and winter months to solve its problem. Had that been done several years ago when concerns were first identified, there would be no issue now.
But with a million-dollar disaster now pressing down on the Tofino tourism industry, the lesson that will linger most bitterly is of the high price of doing nothing.

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