Converting to Environmentally Sustainable Pipes and Drains
An eco-shift in engineering turns stormwater into a rainwater resource, and saves the streams for fish.
by Leslie Gillett
Odds are most people aren’t aware there has been a quiet but profound shift in the operations of storm drains, a greening of the pipes, so to speak.
Unless you are an engineer or a fisheries person, culverts are not something taxpayers spend a lot of time wondering about. They assume that the infrastructure of their city is well planned and doing what it’s supposed to do.
Since efficiency in these cases is equated with invisibility – as in, you only see it when it doesn’t work – that’s fine with Courtenay’s director of operational services, Kevin Lagan. But when asked about some of the environmentally sensitive changes to city underpinnings, Lagan is quick to point to the mid-Vancouver Island city’s quiet underground revolution.
Gone are the days of seeing roads and buildings as coming first in the planning stages, and impacts on the surrounding area as a very distant second. City planners are shifting to a more holistic view where one side has to meld into the other.
Courtenay – sometimes viewed as a bit of a quiet backwater by other larger cities – is no longer the new kid on the block, environmentally speaking. That’s particularly evident when dealing with water use, drainage, and conservation, says Lagan. “We are managing a rainwater resource now,” he says, “rather than just looking at storm water drainage. The water balance model that was adopted in 2002 works by establishing systems than are trying to mimic nature.”
For example, at the Home Depot store there is a rainwater collection design that doesn’t simply send runoff into the drains but works with filters and a deep well injection system to put the water back into the earth on the site. Why? It lessens the chance of flooding of nearby homes and land, protects the balanced ecosystem of the area, and recharges the groundwater.
“We are working to reduce storm flows into rivers, creeks, and streams,” Lagan says, which protects delicate wetlands and the fish and wildlife in and around them.
So why rainwater resource rather than storm runoff?
Semantics matter, because words have the power to change how issues are viewed and resolved. “For example, we now have five good years of experience in managing the rainwater resource rather than dealing with stormwater issues,” he says. Changing the terms changes the context. Water resources of all kinds become viewed as integral to the land, a system to understand and manage rather than simply a problem to deal with.
Changes in planning standards, development costs, pilot projects with BC Hydro, a seven-year involvement with the Dark Skies Society – which mitigates unnecessary light spillage – proactive water management, creation of bike ways – all these changes add up to a stronger, more environmentally sustainable city.
Enforcement of existing regulations and collaboration with neighbouring communities are key to the success of the big picture. For example, Lagan is aware that Nanaimo is working with a pervious asphalt that would let some rain through instead of running off into often overloaded highway storm drains. Questions about the freeze-thaw cycle and car oil pollutants have yet to be answered, Lagan says, before putting it into widespread use.
Sharing information that feeds into a common goal works for everyone, hence the collaboration with such groups as the Association of Coastal Communities, Convening Action on Vancouver Island (CAVI), watershed groups, and other environmental stakeholders.
It’s a shift in emphasis from small-town excitement at “progress” and growth at all costs to a more mature, balanced view, where all parts of the picture are equally important to creating a livable region. Lagan is quoted on the CAVI website: “We are moving to the next stage, which is to evolve from stating what we want Courtenay to look like to ensuring that it actually occurs on the ground.”