Old Wells, Historic Data, and Current Aquifer Insights

Where were you in 1963? I was 9 years old. And despite being an avid reader who was fascinated by stories of travellers and exotic locales, I had never heard of a place called Fanny Bay. But the folks in Qualicum knew of Fanny Bay. In December of that year, there was a 482 foot test well dug in the hills above Fanny Bay by the Village of Qualicum (now the Town of Qualicum). The well driller’s report is available today as part of the online Provincial Well Database. It lists the various types of rock and sediment (the lithology) encountered during the drilling of the well. This kind of information is invaluable when mapping aquifers. As far as our aquifer research is concerned, finding this report was like hitting a home run. But what if we could find the well itself? What if it were possible to install a depth recorder? Now, that would be like hitting a grand slam!

We learned about the existence of this well while reading historical documents from the 1980’s and 90’s.  In 1987, the Ships Point Improvement District (SPID) Board of Trustees wrote a letter to the Regional District of Comox-Strathcona expressing their “unalterable opposition” to zoning changes that would allow the construction of a hatchery on Stelling Rd. Over the objections of SPID and local citizens, the hatchery was built anyway. (Initially, the hatchery operated as United Fisheries, then it was sold to Cermaq, a Norwegian company, and it’s now owned and operated by Mitsubishi Corporation). 

When the hatchery was built and its wells began pumping, the effects were felt by neighbours in the immediate area. Well levels dropped. Some ran dry. An ad hoc citizens group, the Coal Creek Aquifer Protection Committee, was formed. (Coal Creek is now called Wilfred Creek). Before long the Province got involved. A 1992 letter from the Provincial Water Management Division in Victoria to the chairman of the Coal Creek Aquifer Protection Committee includes copies of an internal study assessing the viability of the hatchery in terms of fresh water. The study also includes a map showing local springs, proposed “test holes”, and ……. the “Old Village of Qualicum well”. 

Armed with this map and the latitude and longitude of the well, which we found in a separate record in the provincial well database, we thought we might be able to find the well itself. 

So, on a recent Tuesday, after we had finished the routine sampling of our five creeks, we set about exploring. It felt like we on a modern day treasure hunt. We started by going to the latitude and longitude shown for the well. As one might imagine, after 57 years, this location was deep in the bush, about 200 metres from the nearest logging road. But the undergrowth wasn’t too dense and the possibility of finding a 57 year old well, not to mention the notion that we might find a patch of chanterelles along the way, made things pretty exciting. But we soon decided we weren’t in the right spot. There was no sign of a road. Even after 57 years there should be some evidence of an old roadbed. Indeed, the terrain was sloped and it was hard to picture any place where a drilling rig could have found level ground. And on top of that, there were no chanterelles.

The old map from the provincial hatchery study didn’t show latitude or longitude but many of the logging roads shown on the map seemed to line up with current roads. The map had the well a couple of kilometres away from where we had been searching initially. Cruising slowly along the gravel road, we got as close as we could to where the well appeared on the map. We came to a place where the trees seemed just a bit thinner than the rest. We got out of the car and, on foot, plowed through some of the roadside Snowberry bushes and Nootka Rose. We eventually emerged into a quiet, shady woodland. The ground was flat for several metres on either side and appeared to extend in front of us for quite a way. It had all the appearances of an old roadbed. Walking further in, we noticed an overgrown ditch on one side. Clearly, we had found the remnants of the road that would have led to the well site. After about 100 metres we came to another overgrown ditch directly in front of us and perpendicular to the other ditch. It was the end of the road. We excitedly cast about, in ever widening gyres, hoping to stumble on an old well casing sticking out of the ground or, more realistically, evidence of an old concrete pad or some sign of a decommissioned well. We found nothing, not even chanterelles.

So, we need to go back to the archives. If we can find records of the well’s decommissioning we can decide if it’s worth searching more intensely. But even if we never find the well, having the recorded location with its associated lithology is extremely useful. Any efforts to map the aquifer will be able to use this data as a calibration template.

The existence of the old well records raises some interesting questions. Why was the Village of Qualicum looking for water so far north? And the report states that there was never any test pumping done, despite evidence of a possibly productive aquifer between 265’and 325’. Why did they not pursue the issue further?

Then there are some less obvious but even more interesting questions. What if a large water consumer were to begin extracting water from our aquifer? What effects might that have on our wells? History has shown that a heavy industrial user such as a hatchery can have deleterious effects on local wells. And history has also shown that over-pumping from our aquifer could have potentially disastrous effects: the letter from the SPID trustees to the Regional District makes reference to a well that served the Tozer Land and Development Co. Ltd. This well served 90 households and was 650 metres north of the existing SPID wells. In December 1975, this well experienced saltwater intrusion and had to be abandoned.      We ignore history at our peril. We’re extremely fortunate to be living on top of such a fabulous source of fresh water. But it isn’t an unlimited supply. I sincerely hope that someone writing an article for the Fanny Bay Flyer 57 years from now will be able to report on the continued health of our local aquifer. Rather than detailing a sad history of over-pumping, salt intrusion, and abandoned wells.

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