Hullcar Aquifer Review

Would you put waste in your drinking Water? – Water is Life.

On November 30th, an independent review about the contamination of the Hullcar aquifer was released. The review, ordered by George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, outlines some truly positive recommendations for addressing the root causes of agricultural pollution in the Hullcar aquifer.

This review has been a long time coming. The people of the Hullcar Valley have been under water advisories since March 2014 because of nitrate contamination in the aquifer. This groundwater source is the only source of safe drinking water for some 350 people, including residents of two federal reserves on unceded Secwepemc title lands. Splatsin was not officially notified until 2016 that there was a nitrate contamination of the aquifers. Manure and fertilizer application on nearby farms is a major cause of the contamination. The Ministry of Environment and Interior Health Authority have determined the contamination is being caused by a 1,300-cow dairy in the centre of the valley and a smaller one at the west end.

Since 2014, nitrate levels have increased from 10 parts per million (ppm)--the maximum allowable concentration per the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines--to the most recent test level in November of 15.9 ppm, the highest it has ever been. Nitrates in excess of 10 ppm can be a serious health hazard for newborn infants, people with compromised immune systems and the elderly. They are considered to be carcinogenic.

The Hullcar watershed is the northern headwaters of the Okanagan Watershed. The water comes into the Hullcar aquifer clean, and leaves contaminated, with some 85 per cent of the leakage springs at Steele Springs heading down Deep Creek to enter the North Arm of Okanagan Lake.

The Splatsin and The Save Hullcar Aquifer Team have been working together since February 2016 to advocate for solutions to this entirely preventable contamination. This coalition has been instrumental in driving action to address the issue. We are encouraged by the review, and the government’s initial response that they are “listening and have already begun to implement the report’s recommendations.”

The drinking water crisis in the Hullcar Valley is by no means inevitable. The government has the ability to influence where, when, and how agricultural fertilizers and waste are applied and consequently how this affects (or doesn’t) local water supplies. Smart regulations that minimize runoff, promote regular monitoring and enforcement are particularly key to ensuring our water supplies are safe from harm. The government has spent the last three years attempting to match the nutrient applications to the crop needs, with little success. Because of the inability to accurately forecast the weather, Nutrient Management Plans can only ever be a “best guess.”

The Ministry has committed to reforming the Agricultural Waste Control Regulations in response to recommendations in the review. This is important not only to redress the contamination in the Hullcar aquifer, but also to prevent crises like these in other parts of British Columbia.

We’re motivated by some promising next steps to address the aquifer contamination:

  • Working collaboratively with First Nations to develop and implement water protection tools;
  • Providing robust, independently verified monitoring and reporting, especially in high-risk watersheds;
  • Issuing and enforcing a temporary moratorium on liquid animal waste spreading on identified areas of concern;
  • A cap on animal density for Intensive Livestock Operations that spread agricultural waste on site.
  • A review of the safety of an underground manure effluent pipeline installed by the biggest dairy to transport its effluent to other properties it has purchased, leased or contracted in and close to the valley.

An important piece in safeguarding our water resources is listening to and working with local communities. Building collaborative, government-to-government relationships with First Nations is also a key component. The government’s recent decision to approve the Site C dam has made Splatsin nervous about the government’s stated intention of fully adopting and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, Splatsin remains committed to implementing the memorandum of understanding with the B.C. government to secure mutual consent on freshwater decisions in our territory. Water in our culture is sacred and the life-blood of all of creation. Whatever we do to the water we do to ourselves.

Splatsin also looks forward to continuing to work alongside the Save Hullcar Aquifer Team, as well as local players like the Steele Springs Waterworks District, Spallumcheen Council and local community members to protect our precious drinking water from avoidable harms.

Water issues are front and center in this province. We would certainly do well to address issues before they devolve into crises.

The last time the Hullcar aquifer was contaminated by improper management of agricultural waste, it took seven years to remediate itself. It remained at less than 2 ppm for five years, with 3 ppm the level at which human activity is considered to be the cause. The aquifer has shown its ability to remediate if the contamination is stopped. Soon, it may be too late.

We hope this is the first of many proactive actions to ensure clean, safe drinking water in the Hullcar Valley and in communities across British Columbia.


Written by:
Kukpi7 Christian – Splatsin, Tribal Chief - Secwepemc Nation 

Al Price- Chairman, Save Hullcar Aquifer Team

Cathie Price- Vice-Chair, Save Hullcar Aquifer Team

Coree Tull- Organizing Director, Canadian Freshwater Alliance

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