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News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Stormwater reached knee-level at TRIUMF on Sept. 29 || Photo courtesy of Jim Hanlon.

UBC seeks to tap rain as renewable resource

Curtis Ballard rushed to fasten plywood between parking curbs as rain cascaded down Wesbrook Mall. The water runoff streamed toward…

Stormwater reached knee-level at TRIUMF on Sept. 29 || Photo courtesy of Jim Hanlon.
Stormwater reached knee-level at TRIUMF on Sept. 29. Photo courtesy of Jim Hanlon.

Curtis Ballard rushed to fasten plywood between parking curbs as rain cascaded down Wesbrook Mall. The water runoff streamed toward TRIUMF, the laboratory for particle and nuclear physics at UBC.

“The water outside eventually rose to our knees,” said Ballard, TRIUMF’s operations manager, who worked with personnel from the lab and the physical plant to clear catch basins and set up dewatering pumps.

Although the water from the flash flood seeped into offices and damaged flooring, the group’s work spared a nearby laser lab filled with high precision equipment. They now refer to it as the great flood of 2009.

Such temperamental tales become lore at the University of British Columbia, which sits on the outskirts of rainy Vancouver.

The project team behind Campus and Community Planning know the challenges of managing stormwater, but are also creating policy that may channel it into opportunity.

The planners are entering the final phase of drafting the UBC Vancouver Campus plan, the guiding document for the next 20 years of development on the University’s academic lands. Taping the copious amount of rainwater as a renewable resource is finally on the agenda.

Planning up a storm

The current plan commits the administration to following 12 general policies found in section 4.6.4 of the draft, which deal with stormwater management and water waste on campus.

“We think we could take a more integrated approach and think of water as a resource rather than as a waste,” said David Grigg, associate director of infrastructure and services planning. “Water is not being seen from a natural systems point of view.”

Instead, the free-flowing resource is often seen as a nuisance, evidenced by the Facebook group UBC Drainage Sucks!, where students gather to gripe and discuss specific trouble spots, such as the west entrance to the chemistry building.

“There is a patch of dryish grass to the right of the stairs,” said Nicholas Steinberg, a member of the group. “Hop there, then hop onto the railing of the stairs. From there, you can climb to safety.”

Another member, Emily Lai, called UBC “a swamp with rare dry spots”.

Effective rainwater management could help reduce the number of puddles on pathways, though the plan is more focused on managing runoff systematically.

Community members examine the campus plan on display boards in the Student Union Building
Community members examine the campus plan on display boards in the Student Union Building

As water travels through campus and inconveniences community members, it also becomes more polluted, eventually contaminating the base of the Fraser River estuary or flowing into a system of pipes that lead to the ocean.

Grigg said UBC must move beyond approaches that simply aim to drain the water, get rid of the bottlenecks, and get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

The natural systems alternative is to see stormwater as part of an ecological cycle that the community can come to appreciate. New designs will make it possible to capture some of that water and find uses for it, like irrigating lawns and plant life on campus.

The planners also want to improve the quality of the water that returns to the ocean.

Students weigh in

Kristen Van Esch, a graduate student studying geological engineering, said she is impressed by the ideas thus far.

“When I think of stormwater management, I imagine sewers and flood mitigation,” said Van Esch. “I’ve never heard of this natural systems approach.”

Other students think the plan may be overly ambitious.

“There seem to be a lot of different goals, and I’m not sure if it’s all feasible,” said Owen Marmorek, a first-year undergraduate arts student, as he examined other priorities on the open house display boards.

Besides feasibility, other students wonder about funding.

“They’ve done investigations to see if these sorts of things are possible,” said Andrew Carne, a fifth-year undergraduate engineering student, “but at the same time, it is a wish list.”

Carne, who has attended three feedback sessions for the campus plan, said the planners seem well-intentioned. Still, he said the difficulty with long-term visioning is that planners often create comprehensive designs that do not come to fruition without funding.

But the cost of inaction may be considerable. In 1995 alone, campus-wide flooding cost the university upwards of $300,000 in damages, said Grigg.

“Could we learn to think of [water] as being a scarce commodity that deserves due respect?” he asked.


  • The project is innovative and adventurous only for B. C. In poor nations collecting rainwater is pretty well routine practice. Logistics seems to be hurdle here. It does aim to kill two (thunder)birds in one stone which is really cool. The under-appreciation of water as life source here in B. C. is understandable but as the climate change makes things worse the value of water comparing that with oil at $10 a litre would make people conserve it a precious good. Just a matter of time now. Things are already rolling in that direction. Then the cost factor no longer be an obstacle. Better to keep moving on it. Great piece Fabiola.

  • YEMEN: Clambering up mountains to find water
    40,000 Women & children clambering up 1,500-1800m high mountains to find water. Yemeni Govt will provide construction materials to build rainwater catchment tanks next year to farmers. Thousands of Yemeni girls dropping out of school as a result of the water shortage. A serious humanitarian crisis in the Middle East is about to erupt as Climate Change takes harder grip on the world.

  • You may wish to bring to the attention of the interested this article entitled “Harvesting precious rainwater” which assert that their collection systems are simple, cheap and easy to put together By Mary James

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