Gaze west from this city’s quay over the lovely silver-flecked vista of Alberni Inlet and steep, forest-clad ridges frame the horizon.
Behind those ridges is Henderson Lake, wettest place in North America.
Can a town barely 20 kilometres as the raven flies from where 8.9 metres – yes, that’s metres, not millimetres – of rain has been recorded annually be worrying about its domestic water supply?
Yes, it can. Vancouver Island’s mountain snowpack is the lowest in 30 years. Around Alberni, snow accumulations are zero. This has dire implications for streams flows, the recharging of aquifers and domestic water supply for communities.
Possible water rationing is already front page news for the Alberni Valley Times. Last year, water ran short in August, this year, perhaps June.
To complicate matters, Port Alberni doesn’t control its water source. The watershed is owned by Island Timberlands LP, a private company that generates annual revenue of $16.5 million from more than 250,000 hectares of private forest, 75,000 hectares of which surround the town.
Timber prices are up. Island Timberlands responded by accelerating cut in the watershed from which Port Alberni draws drinking water.
Now, even here in a gritty town with deep roots in the forest industry, opposition to business as usual is heard.
Back in 2013, a group of 23 organizations, foresters, scientists and local MLA Scott Fraser signed a letter expressing concern that 60 per cent of old growth – some designated by provincial scientists as critical winter range for deer and elk under the tree farm licence from which they were removed in 2004 — had been logged in the upper watershed.
Old growth there also serves as a filtration system for the town’s high quality water.
“Logging on these steep old-growth slopes has a high potential to alter the quality and rate of water flow and the streams’ courses,” Fraser warned in a letter last October to the Managed Forest Council which oversees logging practice on private lands. Watershed cutblocks above China Creek “should never have been logged,” he said.
The MFC reviewed. Timberlands exceeded standards for logging in community watersheds, it ruled. Besides, it was second growth forest.
Fraser wrote again in November asking a second review. Old growth was indeed being logged on the ridge, he said. Roads cut across steep erosion-prone slopes. He asked to personally accompany the next MLF survey.
Port Alberni has just upgraded its water treatment with a $4-million disinfection system. It fears that if turbidity increases, a full water treatment plant might be needed with costs in the $70-million range– a bitter pill for a small community struggling to adapt to economic decline.
“Every $125,000 increase in budget here is equivalent to a one per cent increase in tax rates,” says Jane Armstrong. She retired to Port Alberni after 25 years working in Ottawa.
By comparison, Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria own their watersheds. Commercial logging is restricted.
Conflicted feelings permeate Port Alberni. On the one hand, this is the masculine heartland of West Coast logging. Fallers drop “sticks” larger in diameter than your average pickup truck.
It’s one of those places where encounters with burly men in a plaid shirts, orange suspenders and stagged pants (hacked off to above ankle level to avoid snags in the slash) are commonplace.
Still, even here opposition is expressed regarding what’s happening up China Creek and along McLaughlin Ridge, which rises at a steep 60-degree angle between Port Alberni and its signature peaks, Arrowsmith and Moriarty.
Mayor Mike Ruttan, born and raised in Alberni, is frank. The city needs “total control” of its water supply, whether in the watershed or from a new source. Letters to the two newspapers bristle with warnings that Alberni can “kiss your water quality goodbye” if the logging of old growth on the steepest slopes of its watershed continues.
When talk like this blooms in Loggerville, politicians in the capital should take note.