BC is in some hot water. This summer has seen unprecedented dry conditions, province-wide, exasperating forest fires and droughts. Right now the Okanagan, Similkameen, Nicola, Cariboo, Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley are all in various stages of high to extreme drought. That’s 18 out of our 29 watersheds, or 62% of the province, experiencing drought in September.
The Coldwater River in the Nicola Basin gives us a clear example of how these conditions impact the health of our life source, our waters. The area was declared to be in a Stage 4 drought in August due to “extremely dry conditions, with water supply insufficient to meet the socio-economic and ecosystem needs of a watershed.” Just two summers ago, severe drought made for water levels so low that fish survival was threatened. The province ordered water users to curb their use. Many agricultural users, whose water demand accounts for about three-quarters of water use in the area, were concerned about the viability of their crops.
Strong evidence suggests that climate change is bringing moreextreme weather events around the globe. Many of these extremes are experienced through water. British Columbia has not been spared from these extreme events. Increasingly, communities in B.C. are enduring consecutive years of extreme flooding--like those in the B.C. interior affected earlier this summer--while on the other hand facing record low water levels and drought with associated blights like the wildfires still burning across our province.
The time is now for smart, prudent and forward-thinking management of our water supplies. Lurching from crisis to crisis lowers our resilience, and costs more in the long-run--to both the environment and our economy.
Thankfully, we do have tools for this. The Province of British Columbia began phasing in the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) in 2016 in an effort to address growing water pressures. However, many critical components of the WSA have yet to be developed--components that will be critical to the health and survival of our shared waters, and the communities, economies, and ecosystems that depend on them.
The following four actions are critical next steps to ensure an effective, world-class water management system in B.C.:
1. Water for nature: ensuring adequate water quantity (ie. environmental flows), is legally protected;
2. Meaningful co-governance with First Nations and involvement of local communities in decision-making that affects their waters;
3. Rigorous and transparent monitoring of water quality and quantity;
4. Adequate funding for implementation of the Water Sustainability Act, including action on promised plans to review commercial water use pricing.
As a province, we have a decision to make. We can proactively shift and adapt to a new climate reality or we will be forced to change because of the ongoing crisis.
With a new provincial government, the next few years provide B.C. with an unprecedented opportunity to re-engage and reimagine what an effective, world-class water management system can look like.
Water is the foundation of life. When we explore the universe looking for signs of other life, water is always the first thing we look for. Luckily, we have water on Earth already. We just need to make sure we take care of it--now before it’s too late.
Coree Tull is the Organizing Director for the Canadian Freshwater Alliance and Lead of the Our Water BC Joint Initiative
Christine Mettler is the Communications and Special Projects Lead for the Canadian Freshwater Alliance