This story has villains and heroes, a plot filled with twists and turns, and an ending that has yet to be decided by you, the reader.
It all begins over 100 years ago, when community designated watersheds were protected as land reserves under the Provincial Land Act. This meant that logging, mining and any other form of resource extraction were forbidden on lands – such as the Alberni Valley’s watersheds – where vital sources of naturally clean drinking water lay.
These water protection measures didn’t bode well with the Chief Forester. He paced around his office, brows furrowed deep in thought and then suddenly, he stopped and a slow, Grinchy grin appeared on his face. He had a plan.
The Watershed Reserves Scandal
The early-1980’s were marked by the Watershed Reserves scandal, where the Ministry of Forests secretly transferred public drinking water sources, slated to be protected as land reserves, into chainsaw rippin’, slash burnin’ logging land.
Ten years ago, the former mill-town of Port Alberni, B.C., a small community nestled in old-growth temperate rainforests at the head of the Alberni Inlet on Vancouver Island, watched in disbelief as the provincial government axed wildlife protection provisions and lifted logging bans in McLaughlin Ridge. Private lands controlled by U.S. logging giant, Weyerhaeuser, were removed from Tree Farm License (TFL) 44, and placed under the jurisdiction of the Private Managed Forest Land Act. A total of 78,000 hectares under TFL 44, which includes the Alberni Valley, were subsequently handed to Island Timberlands.
Approximately 18,000 Port Alberni residents rely on the China Creek watershed, found at the base of McLaughlin Ridge, as a primary source of drinking water. This watershed is shrouded in hectares of rare old-growth Douglas fir forest, which provides natural water filtration and helps to stabilize the slope banks, preventing devastating landslides.
The widespread flooding in Port Alberni last December was a harsh reminder of the importance of old-growth forests in stabilizing steep banks.
Why Karst Needs Protection
The China Creek watershed is one of the many water systems in the Alberni Valley recharged by karst groundwater. Preliminary studies have shown that there is a hydrological connection between the China Creek Watershed and several karstified and potentially karstified limestone units. This ethereal environment connects the surface with the subterranean world beneath our feet, and it is extremely sensitive to disruption from resource extraction activities, such as clear-cut logging.
Reid Robinson, known by the locals as ‘The Karst Man”, has taken government officials on tours to see the importance of protecting karst firsthand, but for fear of their jobs, they “didn’t want to know or hear anything about it.”
According to Jane Morden of the Watershed Forest Alliance (WFA), half of the old-growth forests have been lost in the McLaughlin Ridge. Despite its claims of sustainable forest management, Island Timberlands has not created a Watershed Protection Plan.
At the beginning of November, a meeting was held to discuss the future of the China Creek Watershed. Parties in attendance included environmental organizations, local government, the Ministry of Forests and the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional district. Island Timberlands skipped the meeting as they stated in an e-mail response that “key” staff members were on holidays.
According to Jane Morden, despite claims by a local newspaper that “water quality has improved”, this year residents could detect when their drinking water had been switched to Bainsbridge Lake, (which occurs during times of turbidity in the China Creek watershed) as it has a yellow coloration and a distinct chlorine taste, especially after recent logging in the watershed.
Stop the Clear-cutting
By clear-cutting mature forests surrounding the watershed, the free filtration provided by nature must now be administered through a costly water treatment plant in order for Port Alberni to meet the new Canadian 4-3-2-1-0 drinking water objective.
Yet, as the dust settles, through the fallen trees, there is still promise for clean drinking water and protection of these magnificent ancient forests.
Port Alberni Council has sided with local environmental organizations in the fight to stop clear-cut logging of the old-growth forest in McLaughlin Ridge.
A rally was held last summer at Port Alberni City Hall, which brought together local residents, First Nation groups and environmental organizations in the common goal of protecting the China Creek watershed and McLaughlin Ridge.
Heartwood Films has produced an informative documentary that exposes the plight of McLaughlin Ridge at the hands of Island Timberlands.
The Right to Clean Drinking Water
On November 25th, 2014, the Our Watershed: a Community in Action forum was held in Port Alberni with guest speakers Bruce Fraser and MLA Scott Fraser. This event, hosted by the WFA, provided an opportunity for concerned community members to become informed and engaged with watershed conservation in the Cowichan Valley.
Elsewhere on Vancouver Island, residents and environmental organizations are standing up for their fundamental right to clean drinking water. Community members in Stillwater, British Columbia, concerned about potential logging by BC Timber Sales (BCTS) in their community drinking watershed, formed the Committee for the Protection of Jefferd Creek. With the help of West Coast Environmental Law, a local hydrologist and a Drinking Water Protection Officer, the community was successful in preserving this vital drinking water source for generations to come.
I am interested in hearing from residents of Port Alberni and other communities where private, for-profit organizations have majority control over public drinking water sources. If you would like to share your experiences, concerns or suggestions, please comment below or contact me at email@example.com.
Photos of Logging on McLaughlin Ridge
Further Information on the Alberni Valley’s Drinking Water
Join the Facebook Group, Protect McLaughlin Ridge