Increasingly more of my time has been spent in the office finishing research and presenting my findings thus far. Over the past two weeks or so I’ve twice presented my case study comparing the infrastructure potential of two sites that are seeing ongoing development on the same 1.5 mile road, but are located in two different municipalities and watersheds. Using Green-Gray Analysis, a method established by World Resources Institute, I’m researching potential green infrastructure techniques for these sites, which can be understood as the “strategic use of networks of natural lands, working landscapes, and other open spaces to conserve ecosystem values and functions and provide associated benefits to human populations”, to compare against the cost of one infiltration catch basin system, which serves as the human-engineered or gray infrastructure, to meet the needs of the site’s stormwater management requirements (WRI, 2013).
But luckily I was still able to make the obligatory Vancouver trip via ferry. Vancouver as a city seemed, on first glance, like a city that many are unsuccessfully striving for. Between the thorough transportation systems, green building pervasiveness and mixed-use planning it is evident that truly sustainable cities are possible. Below are some pictures from the Olympic Village neighborhood, the conception of which coincided with the city hosting the winter Olympics in 2010. My host company Aqua-Tex served as one of the consultants on this massive project and have provided texts on its development covering areas such as policy, water and building landscape, infrastructure and many others that have inspired my nearly-completed case study.
Spending two months in the northwest has given me what a former philosophy professor of mine described as a ‘glimpse’, which after exposed to gives the recipient something clear to strive for. Working with Aqua-Tex provided a ‘glimpse’ too, of how to craft, design and implement plans that foster true change that can be found in policies or pointed out from a car. But perhaps the most important notion I will leave Aqua-Tex with is to always know where you are within the watershed. This is a simple, often overlooked concept, but if constantly kept in mind, it will eventually become habitual. It’s importance surfaces most palpably during construction and development and recent history has shown the dystopian effects of designing against nature. But even at the individual level, consciously considering your personal location within watersheds can be the most effective way of fundamentally changing the mindsets that the field of sustainability fights uphill to do.
Gartner, T., Mulligan, J., Schmidt, R., & Gunn, J. (2013). Natural Infrastructure: Investing in Forested Landscapes for Source Water Protection. World Resources Institute.
On Friday, some of the Aqua-Tex staff and myself drove two and a half hours west from Victoria to what my advisor Patrick Lucey described as “the end of the road”. We were on our way to a town called Port Renfrew, which is the western most town in southern Vancouver Island and one of the most western places in all of Canada. About an hour before arriving, all cell service disappeared. The reason for this trip was to meet a developer with great plans for the small town, which lacks much of any industry but has incredible location and geography. His vision was essentially to create a main street from scratch and turn the town into a tourist destination. The street that will eventually become main street has a creek running underneath it, triumphantly named Defiance Creek. Rather than seeing the creek as a liability for the regulations that come along with it, the developer saw it as a great asset. It’s always a pleasure working with developers who understand that in order to have any long-term success, the ecology of a potential site must be established and considered each step of the development process. Developers that design with nature rather than against nature tend to see much more prosperity.
After this discussion we walked the creek and performed an informal Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) assessment (see previous post), which determined the creek to be, on first glance, not-functioning. This was mostly due to a neglected dam and a large part of the stream being channelized, which is understood by the EPA as “Straightening and deepening streams so water will move faster, a marsh-drainage tactic that can interfere with waste assimilation capacity, disturb fish and wildlife habitats, and aggravate flooding”. While walking the creek we stumbled upon the stump of a tree estimated by my colleagues to have been over a 1,000 years old when it was logged roughly one hundred years ago. The picture below is of Tracy, who is a scientist with Aqua-Tex and Lucas who is an engineering student from Brazil and Aqua-Tex’s newest intern, which actually gives me some seniority around the office.
After the stream assessment was completed we drove to the literal and figurative “end of the road” found in Botanical Beach Provincial Park, though unfortunately there was too much fog for a photo-op of any value. On the ride back we engaged in an important discussion regarding the focus of my research which will ultimately culminate in a comparison of two properties that Aqua-Tex has consulted on located on one road but in different municipalities and different watersheds. I will conduct a case study on these two sites examining green infrastructure (GI) techniques and which ecosystem services (ES) these techniques provide. Once that has been established I will then compare the cost and service effectiveness of GI to examples of built infrastructure on these sites in an effort to build a business case for why GI should be more prevalent in development. If there’s enough time left after I’ve done this I will look into the relationship between GI and housing prices using hedonic analysis.
Earlier today two colleagues and I went out to visit a stream because a grant was awarded for its restoration. The stream was constructed over 70 years ago next to a wetland that is periodically drained for agricultural purposes. The stream was used largely for flood protection and irrigation. On first glance, this stream can be considered ‘functioning at risk’. ‘Functioning at risk’ is term that can be more confidently applied after a Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) assessment is conducted. A PFC assessment is a thorough, qualitative method created by the U.S. Department of the Interior: Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Forest Service for the purpose of assessing either lotic or lentic areas. This assessment will be conducted in length at a later date. PFC is an important method and will likely be discussed in future posts.
A plan for restoration by another firm was originally accepted months ago, but was eventually deemed unfeasible during early stages of construction. With the grant in-hand and no feasible plan, a previous Aqua-Tex client advised the project group to seek the help of our office at Aqua-Tex to move the grant and restoration forward.
It’s common practice at this office not to plan or design anything until the potential site is observed in-person on the ground, or in this case- in the water. Though this is some of the best farming land on the island, the pictures below show that the land would obviously rather be a wetland. However, to my surprise the landowner informed me that if he felt so inclined this land could be ready to farm within two weeks time. He also briefed me on food scarcity of Vancouver Island and that if the island were cut off from imported food, their current supply wouldn’t last more than three days. Part of the project will seek to drain this wetland seasonally to coincide with the 100-day/ year window during the region’s dry season. But what makes this restoration even more complicated is that the grant received is for the purpose of rehabilitating fish habitat and more specifically, Coho Salmon runs. Professor Paul Brown often preached the message of how a project should never have only one purpose and this project most certainly holds that ideal.
Before any suggestions weremade after the walk-through, Patrick Lucey, head of Aqua-Tex, posed two questions that should be asked before the development of any project. 1.) How does this project relate to its place in the watershed? 2.) Will the project, if done properly, enhance the overall health of the watershed? Considering these questions will greatly increase the probability of any project’s long-term success. What was ultimately suggested after a discussion with Aqua-Tex, the landowner and the president of the non-profit responsible for obtaining the grant, who happened to be a retired biologist, was to construct a second ‘creek’. This ‘creek’ will technically be a long, thin, constructed wetland, right next to the ‘functioning at risk’ creek and the wetland with channels in between the creeks giving the project the shape of a latter from an aerial view. Some of the ecosystem services that will be gained from this design are increased water storage, biodiversity, food production and Salmon runs to name a few. It should also be noted that this project has striking similarities to Aqua-Tex’s Blenkinsop Creek Restoration project, which won the Federation of Canadian Municipalities-CH2M Hill Sustainable Community Award in 2002.
I recently had the privilege to sit in on a stakeholder engagement meeting to review the final draft of Aqua-Tex’s Watershed Protection Plan for the Comox Valley Regional District in Vancouver Island, British Columbia. A Watershed Protection Plan is a bit different from Watershed Management Plans. The main focus of this Watershed Protection Plan is to protect where the region gets its drinking water from (Comox Lake) at the source rather than let the source degrade, which would eventually result in the installation of an expensive filtration plant. The main ecosystem service in this case is clean drinking water. Currently all sorts of recreation are allowed on the lake including swimming, the use of motorized boats as well as other activities and the only method of treatment is chlorination. However, literature has shown that allowing body contact with drinking water increases chances of the presence of human waste in the drinking water, which can have large public health consequences. There are many examples of communities disallowing recreation in an effort to protect their water source, which ultimately avoids the need for a filtration plant.
The meeting started with what is called a “grounding”. This required each of the 20 or so present to introduce themselves, say who they were representing and answer two questions: 1.) What would be the worst-case scenario if this plan were not properly implemented? 2.) What would be the best-case scenario if this plan were properly implemented? Some of the stakeholders present, who are more formally known as the WAG (Watershed Advisory Group), included civil and environmental engineers, a rep from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, a local politician, reps from two timber companies who own large amounts of land within the watershed, the regional water manager, a Fish and Game Club rep, parks and recreation managers and reps from the Ministry of Health as well as many others. In these introductions I was very glad to hear the concern for the social, environmental and economic implications of this plan as well as a need for considering future generations. The two questions unfolded some vastly different answers from the stakeholders; some said the worst-case scenario is no longer being allowed to swim in the lake and others said the worst-case scenario was human death.
We at Aqua-Tex knew that recommending a halt on recreational activities in or around the lake would not be taken easily by some of the stakeholders, so an extremely comprehensive risk assessment, which ended up totaling over 70 pages, was assembled to give more of a justification as to how these risks were arrived at. Tables were used to the show the likelihood and consequences of risks to the watershed, which determined the level of each risk ranging from low to very high, and were based off of the Alberta Water Safety Plans and British Columbia Source-to-Tap Guidelines. Some of the highest of the 22 risks established in the plan are “Body contact recreation on Comox Lake”, “Lakeshore cabins, camping at designated campsites and Fish and Game Club on Comox Lake”, “Flooding on the order of 100 to 200 year event”, and “Wildfire”. Some of the low risks to the lake included “Underwater log salvage from Comox Lake”, “Transportation on roads distant from watercourses or Comox Lake” and “Potential aircraft crash in other areas of the watershed”.
Overall, the experience was very valuable in that it linked what I had previously studied in more of an abstract manner to real-world application. Reading watershed plans without context in a library does not yield the same understanding as being around the people who are actually drafting the plan and then seeing it presented to the people who will actually be implementing the plan.
Before leaving for Victoria, BC I had packed my best rain coat, rain pants and anything else I could think of to try and prepare for the notoriously rainy Pacific Northwest (or Southwest as I was quickly corrected by my Canadian colleagues). However, upon my arrival one of the first things my advisor Patrick Lucey told me was how the greater-Victoria area was technically designated as a semiarid climate. This is largely because the Island in which Victoria is located (Vancouver Island) is actually south Washington’s northern state line and lies in a rain shadow of the Olympic Mountain Range in Washington State. The picture above is me noting low water levels in a pond which my host company Aqua-Tex constructed in stormwater management efforts for a new housing development. And the picture below is not from Florida, but is the result of land here that is not irrigated. Another one of my colleagues told me that this past May was the driest May in the city’s recorded history, which dates back over 100 years. So is the Pacific Northwest another of the endless victims of climate change? Not exactly. If you were to travel a mere 50 miles north, which is outside of the Olympic Mountain’s rain shadow you will find regions that get annual rainfalls of nearly 360 inches, or roughly an inch a day.
Though the greater scope of my research deals with Ecosystem Services and if/ how they can be valued in a free market, Mr. Lucey advised me to first learn the lay of not only the land in which I will be working for the next two months, but also of how Aqua-Tex functions as scientific consultants. Ecosystem Services are implicit in all the recommendations they give whether it be something small like how to build a deck off your back porch without disturbing habitats or larger projects like constructing wetlands to provide stormwater and flood assistance while also greatly increasing the value of surrounding housing, over $50,000 in some cases. It will be my task from here on out to then adapt these field visits with my research questions.