Oceanside Town Uses Natural Assets to Its Advantage

The town of Gibson has changed the rules by placing natural assets on the same footing as built infrastructure

Oceanside Town Uses Natural Assets to Its Advantage

Gibsons (British Columbia) Chief Administrative Officer Emanuel Machado and Director of Infrastructure Services Dave Newman. Gibsons is the first North American jurisdiction to adopt an Eco-Asset Strategy that erases the distinctions between natural and built infrastructure. (Photography by Abigail Saxton)

Gibsons is small Canadian town that believes in a big idea. It’s the first North American jurisdiction to adopt an Eco-Asset Strategy that erases the distinctions between natural and engineered assets.

For sewer and water utilities, that means lakes, aquifers, and wetlands sit side by side on the asset ledger with pipes and treatment plants. The program has not only gotten the town to think more carefully about its natural assets — it’s also helped to ensure that each dollar invested in infrastructure is better spent.

Gibsons is an oceanside town of about 4,600 people in southwestern British Columbia. The town was established in 1886 and grew slowly over the years from a logging town into a community supporting a diversified economy including a strong recreational and tourism component. Although located on the British Columbia mainland, the town is inaccessible by road, so vehicles typically take a 40-minute ferry ride from West Vancouver. The town is divided into Lower Gibsons, located along the coast, and Upper Gibsons at a modest elevation above the old town.

The town’s water was historically supplied by private wells until the early 1960s when Gibsons began to build a water distribution system. 

Lower Gibsons is supplied by the Gibsons Aquifer, a source of water so pure that it is delivered untreated. Upper Gibsons is served by water supplied by the Sunshine Coast Regional District.

Town water is pumped from three wells and two reservoirs — one each in Upper Gibsons and Lower Gibsons. The older half of the pipe system is made of asbestos cement, while newer pipe is polyvinyl chloride. Frost is not an issue in the area, and pipes are buried to about 5 feet deep.

A solid system

“The system is in good shape,” says Dave Newman, director of infrastructure services with Gibsons. “We don’t have an unusual number of leaks. But we’re also proactive with pipe replacement. Most of our leaks are at service connections.”

An aggressive meter installation program has seen system-wide water use reduced from 800 liters per capita per day in 2008 — when water was billed at a flat rate — to about 350 liters in 2016.

Wastewater is handled by a sewage treatment plant that serves all but a dozen properties on septic systems. The plant is already sized to the town’s maximum planned build-out of 10,000 residents. A single lift station pumps wastewater for about half the population. Like the water distribution system, pipe construction is split between asbestos cement and newer PVC.

A maintenance crew of eight workers under a central project management group are cross-trained to handle maintenance for all of Gibsons’ assets.

“We found initially that when crews were split into groups according to asset class they weren’t particularly effective,” says Emanuel Machado, chief administrative officer with Gibsons. “They’re now working where needed on all town assets across all departments. We’ve also established a program to cross-train our water and wastewater operators, and we provide them with the hours on the job required to certify them.”

Crews are assisted by a Vactor truck, which performs tasks ranging from sewer cleaning to excavating post holes for signs. The town is divided into eight wastewater zones and one zone is completely televised each year using a contracted service. Sewer mains are flushed as needed, although mains subject to grease buildup are flushed as often as twice a year.

The town has developed a robust GIS system and continues to fine-tune its mapping program. All public works and parks employees carry iPads equipped with asset management and mapping software so they can access infrastructure information in the field.

“We’ve also improved our system communications capability since 2015 when we were still accessing information from the SCADA system through cell and radio,” says Machado. “We subsequently had fiber optic systems installed through town and this has vastly improved our efficiency.”

Recognizing natural assets

The town’s official adoption of natural asset valuation was preceded by an appreciation for sustainability.

“We felt it culturally and emotionally, but we lacked the framework for expressing that in our asset management system,” Machado says. “But we trace it to our aquifer mapping study, which was completed in May 2013. We were having discussions with our financial auditors and others in the town around our dependency on these natural assets. The province was already requiring us to include life cycle asset management figures in our books for built infrastructure. However, the aquifer treats and stores our drinking water and wasn’t listed anywhere. In fact, none of our natural assets were incorporated anywhere in our asset management program. We asked ourselves, ‘Why not?’”

Gibsons worked with groups including the David Suzuki Foundation, the Smart Prosperity Institute and the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (see sidebar) to create a methodology for valuating natural assets.

On further examination, the town realized that it not only had a wealth of natural assets, but also that it was spending most of its money to maintain its engineered assets — which represented the smallest asset class.

Following approval by the Town Council in July 2014, the town became the first in North America, and possibly the world, to formally recognize natural assets on equal footing with built assets. In addition to engineered assets, such as pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities, the books now included natural assets such as aquifers, forests, and soils, as well as biophysical assets including human engineered bioswales, engineered ponds, and green roofs.

Accepted public accounting standards, however, failed to account for valuation of natural assets. Instead, Gibsons listed those assets in its annual report.

“With the recognition of the full range of our assets, we could then decide where to most efficiently apply our capital and maintenance budgets,” Machado says.

Natural asset valuation has substantially changed development plans for Upper Gibsons. In order to serve potential new residents, Newman anticipated a cost of $4.5 million to develop increased engineered capacity for stormwater management.

“We compared those costs to those of our natural assets,” Machado says. “We were able to demonstrate that for just a few hundred thousand dollars, we could improve the service capacity of the channels, ponds, and creeks we already use and avoid the engineered expenditure and significant maintenance costs. Furthermore, the value of that infrastructure would not decline over the next 30 years. We sealed the deal with council entirely on the business case and demonstrated that it was made possible by their acceptance of the new asset management plan.”

A battle of business cases

Sometimes built infrastructure is simply the right choice — there’s no such thing as a natural equivalent for a sewage lift station. Sometimes it’s a close call. For example, a business case was made for the town’s White Tower Park area, which includes both natural and enhanced ponds.

“We looked at enhancing the area, building another pond and removing some culverts in a creek below the area,” Newman says. “The capital costs would be the same as an engineered option. However, the natural assets won out in projected maintenance costs of the engineered asset, which would have been about $50,000 per year.”

Machado says that some environmental purists have opposed the notion of placing a value on nature.

“I tell them that we’re not pricing nature, but the services it offers,” he says. “In the absence of a business case, natural assets have a zero value. How does that benefit nature? That approach leads to continued loss of natural assets and the business-as-usual practice of creating more built infrastructure. With our approach, we can have development but also maintain and expand the natural assets that serve our community.”

However, Machado notes that natural asset valuation isn’t simply a plan that inherently values natural assets over built infrastructure.

“It’s always a battle of business cases for the best use of the taxpayer’s money,” he says. “Natural assets have simply been on the winning side of many of our decisions because nature makes a great business case.”

Recognizing your natural infrastructure assets

The Municipal Natural Assets Initiative assisted the town of Gibsons, British Columbia, in developing a methodology for its natural asset management strategy. The initiative is currently working with six other Canadian municipalities on similar pilot programs.

“There are great opportunities for communities to explore and reap the benefits of municipal natural asset management,” says Roy Brooke, director of Municipal Natural Assets Initiative.

Initial steps can include: 

  • Developing a policy directing the community to recognize natural assets
  • Identifying key natural assets in the community and the services they provide
  • Determining the condition of natural assets
  • Determining which assets are highest priority through a basic risk assessment
  • Determining which scenarios the community most wants to understand (e.g., land intensification)
  • Developing management plans and other actions.

“Most fundamentally, local governments should not be intimidated by the prospect of creating a natural asset management strategy,” Brooke says. “It’s simpler than it may appear.”


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