MARK HUME, Globe and Mail, Jun. 12, 2011
When the British Columbia government did a study to find out how many people were getting permits to build docks, dump sand for artificial beaches and put up lakeside retaining walls, it got some shocking results.
On two dozen lakes selected from around the province, researchers found 420 private property Water Act permits had been issued – but more than 4,000 waterfront “modifications” had been done. That means more than 3,500 lakeshore projects were apparently built without authorization.
This isn’t just a case of widespread non-compliance – it’s an epidemic. But little is being done about it because the province transferred enforcement responsibilities to local government without providing funding. So it’s a free-for-all on the waterfront.
“Our lakes are in trouble,” Klaus Kuhn, a director of the Cowichan Valley Regional District, said in a recent e-mail. “To leave local governments struggling with all the responsibilities, but not enough funding, will only result … in a deteriorating environment.”
Mr. Kuhn said paradise is in danger of being ruined because of the lack of control on B.C.’s lakes.
He has been raising his concerns with other regional directors across the province, and said horror stories are pouring in from all over. But no one is sure what to do about it.
“If this trend continues, then in years to come we will ask ourselves, ‘How could we have ever let this happen?’” he said.
The magnitude of the problem is spelled out in two reports: the Lakeshore Development Compliance Project survey, produced by the provincial Ministry of Environment last year, and the Shuswap Watershed Mapping Project, done for the Columbia Shuswap Regional District and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2009.
A new dock here, an artificial sand beach there – individually, there isn’t much to worry about. But cumulatively, it could be damaging. Nobody really knew if the laws drafted to protect waterfront habitat were being respected.
So the government decided to take a closer look. Researchers discovered that in their rush to get close to nature, people have been cutting lakeshore vegetation, dumping sand to create artificial beaches, building rock groynes or retaining walls to stop erosion, and putting in docks at an alarming rate.
Of 32 lakes surveyed province-wide, only one – Call Lake, near Smithers – didn’t have a disturbed shoreline. Then again, Call Lake is surrounded by a provincial park.
On Skaha Lake in the southern Okanagan Valley, 100 per cent of the shoreline was rated as “disturbed.”
On Prospect Lake near Victoria, where 89 per cent of the shoreline is considered disturbed, the survey found more than 20 docks per kilometre.
To determine how many lakeshore residents attained the required permits, researchers randomly selected properties on 24 of the 32 study lakes, then checked to see if their paperwork was in order.
On Okanagan Lake, they looked at 35 randomly selected properties – and not one had Water Act authorization.
On Vancouver Island only three private property Water Act permits have been issued since 1995, but there are 380 retaining walls and 791 docks on the lakes studied.
But researchers found that the few who did get permits adhered to the terms and conditions of their licences. The survey concluded that a handful obeyed the law, paid their fees and respected the environment, but that the vast majority of their neighbours did not.
“There are gaping holes in the enforcement, and they are being taken advantage of by some people for their own purposes,” Mr. Kuhn said. “Lakeshores are being cleared, trees are cut, and beaches are created despite the Riparian Area Regulation [which aims to protect natural waterfront]. Law-abiding residents watching some of the lakeshore destruction are asking themselves if they are not being naive. They see people clearing the foreshore, cutting trees et cetera, and getting away with it. They feel betrayed.”
Betrayed and justifiably worried, because B.C.’s precious natural waterfront is rapidly being eroded, one private dock at a time.