Before you make a big purchase, you want to know how much money is in your bank account (I hope it’s flush in there). Groundwater is like an underground bank account, yet we currently manage it with a blindfold on. We lack a full understanding of how much we have or how withdrawals affect the health of our surface rivers, lakes and streams.
The Water Sustainability Act (WSA) came into force on February 29, 2016 with a promising framework to advance healthy, functioning and well-managed watersheds across the province.
For the Act to stand up to the challenges facing B.C. waterways, it needs strong policies and regulations for legs. The Province has been working on this - most recently asking for public input on proposed policy changes to livestock watering practices.
Ranchers rely on accessible water sources and storage for livestock raising operations. To get access to water, ranchers may divert water from streams, build groundwater or reservoir dugouts, or go through a utility. On the other hand, ensuring that agricultural waste is kept out of streams and drinking water sources, that water quality is protected and water quantity reserved for stream flow, are all essential for human and ecosystem health.
So how far do the proposed changes go to improve livestock watering policies for the benefit of aquatic ecosystems, water users, livestock, and the agricultural sector?
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.
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.
We continue to hear that human-driven climate change is resulting in more extreme weather events. We anticipate climate change to bring about more environmental extremes, but have we done enough to truly prepare for these changes?
Today, our fellow British Columbians are experiencing these very climate extremes. Earlier this summer, a wet start to the season caused severe flooding and mudslides in communities in B.C.’s Southern Interior, such as the Central Okanagan.
The flooding was reminiscent of the rampant flooding across the Kootenay region and parts of the Fraser Valley in 2012, when nearly 700 British Columbians were forced to evacuate their homes to avoid dangers posed by rising floodwaters.
The unusually wet season was followed by extremely hot and dry weather--conditions that have facilitated the spread of wildfires. As wildfires ignited near communities throughout the BC interior, over 40,000 people have already been evacuated. The BC government was forced to call the first provincial state of emergency in almost 15 years. Kevin Shrepnek, BC’s fire Chief of Information has called the situation “fluid and volatile.” He told the Globe and Mail, “the fact that we declared a state of emergency across the province speaks to how serious this situation is.”