Where rainwater and democracy merge

by Aaren Madden, August 2010

Calvin Sandborn of the Environmental Law Centre stands on guard for the environment and public interest.

Every year, a volume of oil equal to the Exxon Valdez spill is carried into Puget Sound through stormwater runoff. This is due to the 20th-century’s fixation with pavement, which, instead of letting natural systems do their work, sends rainwater away through pipes as if it were garbage, rather than the resource it is. In our region, the ramifications are felt and seen as threats to public health (polluted beaches), food security (local shellfish beds closed due to contamination), environment and ecology (the spawning salmon used to be so thick in Colquitz Creek, you could walk across them), and overall quality of life. 

Calvin SandbornThese are just some of the findings contained in Reinventing Rainwater Management, a gripping report (seriously!) published in February by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre on behalf of the Veins of Life Watershed Society.

The report also points out that green infrastructure—like the swales, rain gardens and disconnected downspouts advocated by Freya Keddie in these pages a year ago—is becoming the new paradigm in cities all over. It cites green roof incentive programs in New York, Chicago and Toronto, and notes that Philadelphia encourages developers to reduce impervious areas by 20 percent. So, hallelujah. 

But when I meet Calvin Sandborn, Legal Director of the ELC, I am haunted by that oil spill stat. As we helplessly watch as the Gulf of Mexico haemorrhages, I think out loud, lamely, how do we let these things happen? 

The BP disaster is one example of what he calls “one of the biggest threats to sustainability and to democracy: disproportionate corporate control. People pursuing private profit at the expense of the public interest.” He tells me about something I had missed: the fight between the BP and Trans Ocean workers over removing drilling mud, which kept the oil in its pipe but cost $7 million US per day.

Then he asks, “How do you get to the sustainable decisions we need if we are going to protect the natural world and have a democratic society if there’s this disproportionate power in corporations and expertise? All too often, the public doesn’t have the expertise to challenge corporate power on these issues, and so the corporations will greenwash. When we were doing hearings on whether or not we should allow offshore oil exploration here, the oil companies were saying, ‘We will protect the environment; we will never have a spill bigger than five thousand barrels—it’s impossible.’ The public needs people who can challenge those corporate spokespeople and the decisions that are being made by insiders.” 

And this is where the Environmental Law Clinic at the Centre comes in. As Sandborn explains, “It pairs law students with community and conservation groups and First Nations to provide representation, assistance and advocacy.” The first of its kind in Canada (there is now another at the University of Ottawa), the ELC works in concert with 40 environmental law clinics in the United States and a network of environmental lawyers in 80 countries.

The ELC has pulled the curtain on a few local examples of insider shenanigans, including Western Forest Products’ Tree Farm Licence land sales. ELC was “heavily involved in [the Auditor General’s] report. Students put together a brief which documented how WFP had reported to their shareholders many months before the public that these lands were going to be deleted.” 

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests brought that information to light, as did letters showing insider lobbying for the megayacht marina project. Bob Evans of Community Marine Concepts was Gary Lunn’s fundraising chair, part of a web of questionable dealings. On the very day Sandborn and I met, they had helped file, on behalf of the Dogwood Initiative and paddler Tim Houlihan, an application for judicial review of the federal approvals for the megayacht marina project. “One of the great things Clinic students learn is how to get decisions into forums where the public interest can be considered,” says Sandborn.

So he’s certain that, if a dream city is possible, it can’t happen without the Environmental Law Clinic. “I feel like I have the best job in the world here. Sometimes it’s way too much work, but it is a joy because I have the opportunity to work with brilliant young people who are principled and concerned about sustainability, about the future, and we are able to help them achieve their dreams of making a positive difference.” 

Sometimes, like with the rainwater management strategy, it’s a matter of pointing out things that make no sense, that are done a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done (or at least in the short term memory of generations). The smarter, more sustainable way of doing things usually—oh, irony—saves money. Sandborn, who successfully lobbied to get Workers’ Compensation coverage for BC farm workers and for the implementation of the BC Hydro PowerSmart program, authored Greenspace and Growth: Conserving Natural Areas in BC Communities which underlines the importance and the benefits of letting nature function. “If you identify the green infrastructure that should be protected first—you don’t screw up the wetlands, you don’t screw up the streams—coincidentally, you save a lot of money, because if you don’t run a road straight across that stream, you don’t have to build a bridge,” Sandborn explains. Plus, “you have a city that is much more attractive.” The new First Peoples House on UVic’s campus is an example of what Sandborn advocates as the new normal in cost-saving green infrastructure, and it is beautiful. 

On July 28, the ELC presented their Reinventing Rainwater Management report and an accompanying short film to a joint meeting of the CRD’s Environmental Sustainability and Liquid Waste Management Committees and proposed a regional rainwater management commission for integrated watershed management. If it happens, the benefits of green infrastructure will emerge over time with retrofits and new development, in a city where streams run alongside roadways (instead of through pipes underneath), and where rain is absorbed by porous streetscapes and verdant swale. And the fish return. 

Bowker Creek, which is benefiting from the great restoration efforts of the Bowker Creek Initiative in Oak Bay, cannot fully recover without the same applications in upstream communities of Saanich and Victoria. 

Neither can any city reach its potential and function in the public interest without an empowered citizenry keeping all levels of government honest, Sandborn argues. Pressing a copy of the ELC-published A Citizen’s Guide to FOI into my hand, he concludes, “You can peel back the pavement, do all these projects, and if you don’t have a democratic process that is uncorrupted by insider corporate interests, then you are going to lose sustainable values.”

Read Reinventing Rainwater Management at www.elc.uvic.ca/press/documents/stormwater-report-FINAL.pdf.

Aaren Madden is constantly in awe of how plant life overcomes the constraints of the asphalt sidewalk beside her house, showing nature’s enduring tendency to peel back the pavement. 

Copyright © 2010, Aaren Madden