Kettle River Q&A – How is the water quality in the Kettle River?

Clean, reliable water – it’s what most people hope their rivers and water sources can provide. But how much do we know about water quality in the Kettle River, and do we have problem areas?

In the survey last fall, the quality of water in the Kettle River was a major concern for residents. The phrase ‘water quality’ was mentioned over 80 times by survey respondents, and related issues such as pollution, dirty runoff, and unclean water were noted hundreds of times.

Residents care about water quality because they depend on clean water for swimming, fishing, water supply, and many other uses. However, many respondents also told us that they knew very little information about what’s in the river.

So what do we know about water quality in the Kettle River?

In the Canadian portion of the watershed, surface water quality is sampled every two weeks near Midway and Carson Rd. (upstream of Grand Forks) by the Canada-B.C. water quality monitoring program. The most recent B.C. Ministry of Environment report (2009) concluded that the water quality was similar at both sites and was “generally good”. Some years were in only fair condition.

What does this mean for the river?

Canada has established water quality guidelines that provide information on the levels of chemicals and other measurements that are not likely to be harmful for aquatic animals, stock watering, or other uses such as irrigation or recreation like swimming.

Scientists take all of the sampling data and calculate an ‘index’ that reports on how often, and by how much, these guidelines are exceeded.

Quality is then rated as poor, marginal, fair, good, or excellent. A rating of ‘fair’ means that guidelines are sometimes exceeded, which can lead to impairment or threats to aquatic life.

Measurements that exceeded guidelines include temperature, dissolved fluoride, and a number of metal concentrations such as aluminum, cadmium, chromium, and iron.

The 2009 report also noted increasing trends at one or both sampling sites for turbidity (muddiness), total hardness, phosphorus, molybdenum, dissolved chloride, dissolved fluoride, and fecal coliforms.

Water quality issues such as metals are often associated with sediment during spring freshet, and have been assumed to not be available for uptake by aquatic life. However, questions remain about the effects of sediment and metals on filter feeders like mussels and other invertebrates, and further testing of dissolved metals and mussel and fish tissue has been recommended.

In Washington State, water quality is sampled regularly at Barstow (downstream of the border near Christina Lake), and impairments are reported for temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH and occasionally bacteria.

Ongoing monitoring is critical for understanding how our actions influence the river, and the results will help us plan for future land and water uses in the watershed. These findings are an important start, but we will need more information at other sites in the watershed.

The Kettle River Stakeholder Advisory Group will use this information to make recommendations about how to improve water quality in the Kettle River.

This is the first of several columns on water quality in the Kettle River watershed. Future columns will examine quality in tributaries and lakes, identify sources of pollutants and the meaning to the river, and discuss our options for maintaining and improving water quality in the future.

— Graham Watt is the coordinator of the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan for the RDKB, and is working with a Stakeholder Advisory Group from across the region to develop the plan.