Housing

Meet Fernando Dos Santos—who is wading through bureaucracy to create housing

This is part two of a series of previews of our upcoming feature on housing and water on Salt Spring Island, for subscribers only. For part three, see below.

By Jimmy Thomson
July 29, 2020
Housing

Meet Fernando Dos Santos—who is wading through bureaucracy to create housing

This is part two of a series of previews of our upcoming feature on housing and water on Salt Spring Island, for subscribers only. For part three, see below.

By Jimmy Thomson
Jul 29, 2020
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Housing

Meet Fernando Dos Santos—who is wading through bureaucracy to create housing

This is part two of a series of previews of our upcoming feature on housing and water on Salt Spring Island, for subscribers only. For part three, see below.

By Jimmy Thomson
July 29, 2020
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Meet Fernando Dos Santos—who is wading through bureaucracy to create housing
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

This is part two of our feature on housing and water on Salt Spring Island.

You can read part one here, and the full feature here.

The staircase in Fernando dos Santos’s newly built home is a point of pride for the retired lawyer. It curves to mimic the whorls of a snail shell, a Fibonacci sequence built in as the centrepiece of the big house that overlooks Ganges Harbour. 

But the real treasure is below our feet: a swimming pool-sized rain catchment cistern that has meant he barely touches his well even in the depths of summer. Peering into a hatch just off the kitchen, he estimates he’s got about 10,000 gallons of water left in the tank.

“Last year once May rolled around it barely rained right through the summer,” he says. “By the end of the summer, we still had almost 5,000 gallons left.”

Winter largely skips Salt Spring Island, one factor that has made it so popular among retirees. While it may occasionally snow here—about six days a year on average—the winter is really defined by rain. Rain starts falling in earnest in October and stops abruptly in May. Midsummer, islanders can expect just a few days of rain each month. Previously this seasonal aridity was almost an amenity, like having a great transit system or a Michelin-starred restaurant. But in the era of climate change it is quickly becoming a liability. 

The water that will be consumed throughout the dry summer has to be collected in the rainy season, one way or another. For Dos Santos, the rainwater is collected from the roof, through a few filters, and stored under the floor. For everyone using piped water from North Salt Spring Waterworks, the water is collected in one of two lakes: St. Mary Lake and Maxwell Lake. 

The water utility therefore has the perennial challenge of watching the water level drop, slowly and steadily, throughout the busiest time of year, while keeping faith that the water will rebound again come winter as it always has. Throughout that whole time, they have to provide water to everyone connected to its system, while not fully knowing all the factors that play into where the water is coming from or going.

“All of the islands are struggling to do some type of water balance analysis,” says Diana Allen, a hydrogeologist at Simon Fraser University who has studied the Gulf Islands’ groundwater supply. “But to be honest, the science is…” she sighs. “Even using the best available information right now, I’m not sure we could confidently quantify that balance.” 

The balance, whatever it is, is changing. The winters are getting wetter, with more rain expected to fall on Salt Spring over a shorter period each year as the climate changes. “Instead of it drizzling all day, you’ll get these big whopping storms,” Allen predicts—and the soil might not be able to absorb the dumping rain as well as the gentle mist the island is used to, spilling instead out into the sea. But the dry season, too, is becoming drier. Since mid-June, there have been more days over 35 degrees than there have been days with rainfall. 

It’s months like these that give credence to claims that the island can’t support any more people; that it’s reached its carrying capacity. The island has grown at a snail’s pace, adding just 320 people between the 2011 and 2016 census, but without knowing how many people’s needs the island could meet at its best, it’s even harder to know how many it could accommodate in the range of future scenarios. 

This summer’s incessant heat has provided a glimpse at a likely future. The water level on St. Mary Lake is lower than any year except 2015, and there’s even less water in Maxwell Lake than there was this time that year. Visitors to the island are being asked to bring their own water. If things persist, water use could be restricted to some parts of the day, and sports fields and lawns would be left to wither, as they were six years ago. Hassan and Daigle’s sprawling backyard garden will have to be watered by hand in the cooler gloaming hours of the day.

It’s not just drinking water that’s in short supply. In the cool darkness of the morning at the beginning of June, a fire broke out at Windsor Plywood, an almost perfectly combustible building. For 15 hours, 26 exhausted firefighters worked to put out the fire. They used more than 100,000 gallons of water in all.

The following day, waterworks chair Michael McAllister called Vaughn Figueira. As the operations manager for North Salt Spring Waterworks, Figueira had been awake that night, watching the water level drop steadily as the firefighters pumped and pumped to combat the inferno and stop it from spreading into Ganges. A fire in downtown Ganges, with its aging water infrastructure and dry wooden buildings, would have been a disaster beyond reckoning for the small fire department.

The creaky infrastructure between the water tanks that hold emergency water and the fire raging just outside of downtown was straining to keep up, and the water supply itself was being pushed far beyond what it would normally need to bear.

The first thing McAllister asked: “Did we run out of water?”

The answer: almost. 

Read the full feature here.

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