A Fernwood well brings history lessons, community, and precious water together.
AFTER A CAPITAL REGION SUMMER of near-normal precipitation and one of the wettest Octobers on record (though one of the driest Novembers), it’s easy to forget the troubles much of the world has with limited water supplies. California’s groundwater supply is dwindling; Cape Town is running dry; even Tofino has run out in the past. Climate change promises to bring water insecurity to much of the world. So when a water source is dedicated by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the people of Victoria for all eternity—a source that produces from a fractured rock spring in the middle of a growing city—it’s best to count your blessings, and perhaps even take a sip.
Bill Goers was talking over the fence to a neighbour not long after moving to Fernwood in 1979 when he heard that Fernwood had once been the main water source for Victoria. “This was interesting to me,” he says when we talk at his store, Common Sense Orthotics on Fort Street. The water came from several springs on Fernwood’s Spring Ridge—from which Spring Street takes its name. Flowing from gravel deposits left from the last ice age, the water was collected and delivered first by bucket, and then by wooden pipe until the 1870s.
“People have been meeting at wells forever,” Goers muses, “It’s very old stuff.” Less controversial than saving trees or protecting grizzly bears, water is basic. It draws people together and highlights commonalities. The springs in Fernwood—and the wells that were built over them—were a gathering place for 1800s settlers.
Bill Goers (Photo by Tony Bounsall)
During a Fernwood Community Association radio interview, Joanne Murray, Goers’ wife and vice president of the Fernwood Community Association, recounts the story of Englishman George Hunter Carey, a settler who attempted to privatize the springs. In 1861, Carey bought land that included a popular Fernwood spring. He fenced it off and tried to charge for water. Locals were outraged and burned the fence down. He was excoriated in Victoria newspapers. Carey had the protesters arrested, but the courts sided against him.
Over 20 years after first hearing the story of the Fernwood springs, a friend of Goers was doing research in the UVic Law Library and found evidence of an 1866 land conveyance as part of the Act of Union. It dated back to pre-confederation, when the Hudson’s Bay Company passed ownership of Vancouver Island to the Crown. As part of the union, a well on Spring Ridge was set aside and dedicated, forever, to the people of Victoria. The dedication of the well by HBC was likely a result of the public outcry against Carey’s attempt to privatize a public water source.
In the 1870s, when the city began drawing its water from Elk Lake, the Fernwood well ceased to be used; its location was eventually forgotten. Much of Spring Ridge itself was turned into a quarry.
But Goers’ interest was piqued. He continued his research. Historical maps placed the well just north of William Stevenson Park, near the Fernwood Community Centre. Telling me the story, his enthusiasm spills out, fingers raking his hair until it stands on end. Goers relates how he gathered together local dowser Ron Welch and a few members of the Fernwood community to start planning. Welch dowsed the entire Fernwood neighbourhood, and eventually found water in a corner of Stevenson Park. The Fernwood Community Well project was born, ushering in the return of an old, old practice of gathering around the well.
The group won a $3500 neighbourhood matching grant in 2005 and worked with Victoria’s parks department and gained permission to drill a shallow well of 25 feet. They hit water immediately, which explains why even in the heat of summer, you can walk through Fernwood and hear a trickling of streams under manhole covers. The area, says Goers, is one of Victoria’s only dependable water sources.
In 2008, Goers was prodded by the City of Victoria to spend the rest of their grant money. He worked with Tri-K Drilling to drill a deeper well of 150 feet. Goers won the fourth annual World Water Day Award for his work in 2008. Yet the well still didn’t have a pump.
Spring water, or well water, is still the primary source of water for most who live outside of the Capital Region’s urban areas. I used to live in a house in Willis Point that had one. Iron and calcium turned the linens yellow and scaled the inside of the toilet. It was worth it, though, for the minerals it infused into my garden and for the taste. But for those of us who don’t have our own free source, water remains an uncertain resource in the event of a catastrophic earthquake. Are we prepared to supply water in an emergency in the Capital Region, Goers asked the Emergency Preparedness team in the region? “Not really,” they admitted.
Goers had been negotiating with the CRD, VIHA and the City for permission to drill the well, slowly gaining their trust. He finally convinced officials to let him build and fit the well with a pump by appealing to the need for an emergency source of water. At the end of 2008, Goers and the Community Association won funding to install a pump and cement footing. The CRD has stipulated that the pump can’t remain operational, for liability reasons. They tried locking it, but people kept cutting the lock off. So when it’s not in use, Goers keeps the handle at his house.
A well dedication celebration took place in October 2008. Goers was joined by MP Denise Savoie and MLA Rob Fleming, Songhees Chief Ron Sam and Lieutenant Governor of BC Steven Point. “Water is a public resource,” Savoie said, “It just flows through, it can’t be owned.” As a crowd observed, the well was blessed in Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Wiccan ceremonies. Ceremonial cups were drunk by many, including Point and Sam. Goers, who is incredibly modest, watched from the background.
“Officially, it’s not for drinking,” Goers tells me, “But it belongs to all of us; no one can take this away from us.” Goers thinks of the well as a 150-year project, and the community as its steward. Eventually, he’d like to see the well earn a series of good testing reports so that officials consent to keeping the well unlocked and available as a dependable drinking source. It could offer what so many towns in Europe offer: drinkable spring water as part of public infrastructure.
In the meantime, Goers is out at 9am every third Saturday of the month, rain or shine, to reattach the well handle and pump for anyone who wants some water. You can join him. Many swear their tomatoes grow larger from the mineral content, and bring buckets. Though the water is not officially sanctioned as potable, some stock up, filling glass containers for an iron-rich drink. Some use it for the making of essential oils, which need chlorine-free water for distillation. I’ve joined him a couple of times this fall, and a varied assortment of people always show up. Kids like hanging off the pump while getting the water flowing. “People light up to the idea of what we have,” says Goers. “I’m always pleased to go, because every time, I meet someone I haven’t met before.” The five gallons I bring home tastes of rock and pine and minerals. It’s more thirst-quenching than water out of the tap. I fill my glass every day.
Visit Bill Goers in Stevenson Park, below the Fernwood Community Centre, on Pembroke Street. He’s there on the third Saturday of every month at 9am. Bring a container.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast. She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.