The town of Tofino has survived the tourist season that didn’t quite materialize in the summer of 2023, thanks to the Cameron Bluffs wildfire.
The fire itself closed Highway 4 for several weeks, starting June 6. For the rest of the summer the highway was either closed completely or open to single-lane alternating traffic as fire damage was repaired. The uncertainty of road openings drove tourists away from the west coast.
But even with the full re-opening of Highway 4 on September 1, Tofino tourism operators and locals are facing other concerns. Although Vancouver Island’s west coast communities saw up to 80 percent fewer visitors in the summer 2023, parking for local offshore residents and tourists was still scarce, and so was fresh water.
In an interview with Ahousaht Tyee Ha’wilth Maquinna, Lewis George, he noted that summer water shortages were still a concern for his guests even with the slow season. Maquinna owns the House of Himwitsa Lodge, offering five rooms.
“The first thing they want to do after a long trip is shower,” Maquinna told Ha-Shilth-Sa about his guests.
The District of Tofino stated on their website that historic and prolonged drought has had a significant impact on water levels in their reservoir.
“This week (Sept. 1, 2023) Tofino’s reservoirs reached the lowest levels of 2023,” they stated.
Tofino’s water is collected from creeks on Meares Island, in Tla-o-qui-aht tribal parks territory. In a normal year Tofino receives 424 millimetres of rain from May to September. But in 2023 Tofino saw less than 100 millimetres over the same time period.
Summers have been getting hotter and drier, even in coastal communities like Tofino, so much so that the Coastal Fire Centre issued an extended ban on campfires on July 7. The campfire ban for all Vancouver Island remains in effect.
Anticipating the lack of rain, the District of Tofino launched a water conservation challenge on June 1, encouraging residents to decrease consumption by 20 per cent. But even with early conservation efforts, the District of Tofino Stage 3 water restrictions by July 10. An urgent message was issued by the district on July 14, asking that the community and businesses to immediately reduce water consumption by 20 per cent.
Ha-Shilth-Sa reached out to the district as well as local and offshore First Nations to ask how they plan to manage water and parking with increasing pressure on Tofino’s infrastructure. The District of Tofino was the only one to respond.
“District staff and council are actively working together with Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht leadership to identify short-term and long-term solutions for current parking challenges,” they wrote in an email.
They went on to say that a technical working group has been established to develop solutions for Tofino’s limited parking situation and the challenges offshore drivers face.
Tofino offers free downtown and beach parking passes to residents of Tla-o-qui-aht, Hesquiaht and Ahousaht communities. In addition, they are working with Tla-o-qui-aht to extend Tofino’s seasonal free shuttle bus to Ty-Histanis and Esowista to help meet their communities’ needs.
When it comes to water, the District of Tofino says a roundtable will be established comprised of representatives from business and resident sectors. The purpose of the roundtable will be to provide recommendations to Tofino Council on water-related maters to inform amendments to the district’s Water Conservation Bylaw.
Tofino has made infrastructure upgrades to its reservoirs, which were installed in September 2023 to increase reservoir resiliency in the face of extended drought.
The district gave away water aerators to residents in 2023 to reduce consumption. They are looking at incentives to encourage residents to collect rain and to use recycled water for things like gardening.
Stage three restrictions in Tofino means a ban on the use of water outdoors for things like outdoor showers, washing or rinsing cars, boats, bicycles and windows. No filling or topping up hot tubs and pools is permitted, no watering lawns and gardens and no pressure washing.
People were being asked to take fewer showers, and shower no longer than four minutes. Accommodation businesses were asked to notify their guests of water restriction measures and to remove extra towels, bathrobes, and tub stoppers from rooms.
On September 1, the District of Tofino called for urgent water conservation measures to avoid moving to stage four restrictions, which could significantly impact businesses and potentially trigger a state of local emergency.
The district didn’t go past stage three and stepped down to stage one water restrictions as of September 19, 2023.