Category Archives: columns

THE KETTLE RIVER – HOW HIGH FOR HOW LONG?

Everyone can see that the Kettle River is high thisriver overflow photo spring from the flooding at City Park to the rushing water under the black train bridge.  In fact, the river has been running more than twice as high as the 86-year average recorded by the US Geological Survey for March and April, 2016. Right – City Park, Grand Forks, BC (David Dunnet)

Despite above average water runoff, the possibility of drought this summer is still high.  Both the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) and the North American Space Agency (NASA) have released data showing that globally, March 2016 was the hottest on record.  Not only has March beat the record for temperature, so had January 2016 and February 2016.  Even if you don’t believe that climate change is occurring, these results are troubling and both point to a hot and dry summer. To read more about this, go to: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/15/march-temperature-smashes-100-year-global-record

If temperatures remain high and rainfall remains minimal, we must consider the possibility of drought.  A striking example was in 2003 where there were above average levels of water in the Kettle River in the spring but as high temperatures and low rainfall persisted throughout the summer, a drought was experienced partnered with a large number of forest fires, particularly around Kelowna.  This is a lesson that cannot be forgotten.  Although there are high water levels now, we cannot depend on that to continue throughout the summer.

Here at the Kettle River Watershed Management level, we are beginning to work on a drought management plan that will include input from local government water suppliers (e.g. City of Grand Forks, City of Greenwood, Village of Midway, Christina Lake).  The water suppliers have agreed that this will be a useful tool for managing drought as a team.  Also, this team agrees that education is the main area that should be focused on to conserve water and minimize the impacts of future droughts.

Education and water conservation starts with every citizen, farmer, and business owner. Everyone can help conserve water.  If watering your garden or lawn, do so at night or in the early morning (60% of water can be lost to evaporation if using sprinklers to water during the day, which equals 6L lost and only 4L making onto your lawn!); collect and use rain water; install and use drip irrigation to water your gardens and trees; and/or replace your grass with drought resistant evergreens and plants.

Every action that we take to conserve water and protect the river will be appreciated by generations to come.  Should the City of Grand Forks Councillors have decided to remove the Level 2 water restrictions?  Only time will tell.  Conserve water and pray for rain.

Your new Kettle River Watershed Management Coordinator, Jessica Mace.

Kettle River Q&A: What’s next for the Kettle River Watershed?

In the last column I reviewed a few of the main activities and initiatives of 2015 for the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan. Today I want to look ahead to 2016, sharing a few of the priorities in the Plan that our Steering Committee and Advisory Group are committed to achieving.

On November 19 we held a second meeting with a large group representing water suppliers from across the Boundary. There were farmers, municipal councilors, small water utility operators and technical staff, there to talk about how we can better respond to drought.

Two main points emerged. First, the group identified that more information sharing and education was needed for water users and ratepayers in how (and why) to reduce water use in different settings. That could include everything from bulletins and columns to hands-on demonstration and door-to-door contact to support compliance with water regulations. This relates to several actions in Strategy 1 in the Plan.

Second, the group recommended developing a common approach and terminology in a water conservation and drought response strategy (Action 2.3.1 and 2.4.1). The BC Drought Response Plan clearly articulates a role for local partnerships in responding to drought, providing a good starting point for our discussions. Though as some group members pointed out, our strategy needs to be proactive, not reactive, by instilling widespread water conservation practices that help reduce the impacts of drought before we even get to water restrictions.

We will be discussing these points with water suppliers over the coming months in order to develop a sound and well-supported strategy that could be adopted as policy across the region.

Another major initiative for 2016 is building an online map-based interface so the public and decision-makers can learn more about their water supplies, discover reports and monitoring information, and connect the dots between different issues (Action 1.2.1). Relevant information is currently housed in dozens of different websites and databases, making it difficult to put together a current and coherent picture of issues such as drought, land use impacts or ecosystem stresses.

The water cycle and the watershed. Courtesy Conservation Ontario.
The water cycle and the watershed. Courtesy Conservation Ontario.

Throughout the planning process, many people have shared their concerns about protecting the headwaters – our ‘water towers’ in the mountains and plateaus – from the impacts of different land uses and activities. While some point the finger at one group or another, the problems are really cumulative and interconnected, so we need to look deeply at the issues (as in the Granby Wilderness Society’s Riparian Threat Assessment) then work together on meaningful solutions (Direction 3.1 and 3.2).

To that end, we are planning to work with the Okanagan Nation Alliance Natural Resource Committee to co-host a community forum this winter on protecting the headwaters (Action 1.1.5). We are really excited about learning more about our common interests in the headwaters and about First Nations knowledge and perspectives about land and water. Stay tuned for more details.

We will be continuing to work with the Boundary Habitat Stewards and other partners to restore habitat around streams, lakes and wetlands, and connecting with planning initiatives by local governments, forestry and agriculture to improve watershed health and function.

Of course, there are other priority actions that various stakeholders wish to support or lead as we move forward – I look forward to hearing from you about your priorities and commitments. As the Plan indicated, many different organizations share responsibility among their various jurisdictions for protecting and managing water, and we need to work together to ensure policies and practices are connected, consistently and effectively, by the one common thread of healthy, functioning waterways and ecosystems.

To learn more, come to Greenwood’s MacArthur Centre behind the Library on Wednesday evening, 6:30-9:00. Desserts, coffee, and good conversation!

Kettle River Watershed Management Plan – A year in review

In anticipation of our Watershed Update on November 25, this two-part column will review some highlights from the last several months of work, and next week preview the work in the coming year.

As of the end of November, it will be one year since the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary endorsed the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan and ‘launched’ it for the benefit of the Kettle River and its communities.

The endorsement by the RDKB and the Boundary municipalities (Grand Forks, Greenwood and Midway) – as well as other organizations and government departments – signaled a significant commitment to continued local leadership in watershed management. This commitment is special because while much of the jurisdiction over water supply and resource management lies with the provincial and federal governments, it truly takes the vision and collective effort of local and regional partnerships to achieve meaningful change.

The leadership by local water suppliers and the provincial government was tested this summer during the heat wave and drought, even before the fires hit. Local government officials and water managers assembled in early August to share information on water conservation efforts and drought response, and the conversation is already having an effect. We are meeting again this week to plan for how we will work together over the next year in terms of drought response, water conservation, and information exchange.

The drought and fires of 2015 fit the expected pattern of climate change, with wetter winters, earlier spring run-off, and long, very dry summers with increased drought and fire risk. The Plan identified a suite of actions to build resilience to climate disruption in the Boundary. In our view, resilience includes both reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) and reducing climate risks to water, land and communities from flood, drought and fire through local solutions (adaptation).

To that end, the Regional District is undertaking a study to determine the feasibility of using local government carbon offsets to fund restoration of streamside (riparian) and floodplain forests. If the feasibility study has promising results, this approach would both sequester carbon in the growing trees and provide protection for shorelines and floodplains from damaging floods. We’ll know more in the coming months.

The Plan determined that riparian areas faced significant risks from various land uses and management impacts, so we knew we had to study the issue further. While there have been some efforts to increase stewardship of riparian areas in some sectors, no one has been monitoring the combined effects of land use and development including forestry, range, recreation, industry, agriculture, and urban development.

To study these impacts, I worked alongside Jenny Coleshill (Granby Wilderness Society) to develop a ‘threat assessment’ of riparian areas across the watershed, using spatial information, maps, and in-field conditions. At our Watershed Update we will share the results and point the way towards better protection, management and restoration of riparian areas and wetlands across the watershed.

Throughout the last year an informal partnership known as the ‘Boundary Habitat Stewards’ (Christina Lake Stewardship Society, Granby Wilderness Society, Boundary Invasive Species Society, Grand Forks Wildlife Club, RDKB, and BC Forest Lands and Natural Resource Operations) has been active on many restoration and habitat enhancement projects across the region. These include habitat enhancement for the endangered Speckled Dace in the Granby, Kettle and West Kettle Rivers; slope stabilization and fish habitat protection at Sion Cemetery west of Grand Forks; wetland restoration at Boothman’s Oxbow Provincial Park; and a native plant nursery and lakeshore restoration at Christina Lake.

Volunteers plant riparian shrubs and trees this spring at Pines Bible Camp on the Granby River
Volunteers plant riparian shrubs and trees this spring at Pines Bible Camp on the Granby River

We’ve also been building our capacity for restoration by bringing in restoration expert David Polster to teach a course on riparian restoration at Selkirk College. Residents, landowners and stewardship group members from across the Boundary participated and learned hands-on about restoration of eroding streambanks and hill slopes.

There so is much more to share about the last year than I have space for here, so come on out on Wednesday, November 25 to the MacArthur Center in Greenwood (above / behind the library) for some dessert at 6:30 and an informative evening of presentations and conversation (7:00-9:00).

Graham Watt is the coordinator of the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan for the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary. Contact Graham at plan@kettleriver.ca or 250.442.4111.

Kettle River Q&A: Responding to drought with water conservation

We’re going to need to work together on this one. What helps us conserve water during a drought, and why do we not take more steps to conserve water?

At a recent meeting of water suppliers and municipalities in Grand Forks to discuss the drought situation and potential responses, I introduced some ideas about what motivates water conservation, framed as personal reasons people don’t conserve. We had a good conversation about what these ideas mean for how we develop the short and long term water conservation strategies – more on that later.

“It’s not a problem.” I’ve heard this quite a bit on social media, letters to the editor, and even public meetings. People aren’t aware of their connection between their water use and the state of the Kettle River, or they don’t believe that they have enough impact, either way, to start conserving.

There certainly is a problem. The Kettle River and many of its tributaries are flowing very low right now, after a low snowpack and early spring freshet. The region (like much of southern B.C.) is at a Level 4 drought, and any excess water use from surface or ground water reduces available water for fish, water quality, aquatic ecosystems, and downstream use.

This seems like it should be easy to fix – more education! More signs, more media coverage, more pamphlets. Many of the water suppliers are already working on this. Awareness certainly helps, but it turns out there are many more barriers in the way to water conservation. Indeed, awareness without other measures will only motivate change for some people.

“No restrictions are in place.” According to water supply managers at the meeting, restrictions are having an impact on overall water use, with many people even going further to allow their lawns to go dormant.

However, the provincial government has so far only requested voluntary reductions of 30% or more, and only some of the water suppliers have a drought response plan that restricts outdoor water use. Furthermore, provincial regulations currently only affect surface water licences, even though using ground water from sand and gravel aquifers has a direct impact on surface water levels.

New regulations coming under the Water Sustainability Act could go a long way to improve our drought response, together with active efforts at compliance and enforcement by water suppliers and local and provincial governments. They will need your input to get these regulations right – future columns will highlight proposed changes.

“My neighbours are all still watering.” The ‘neighbour effect’ cannot be underestimated. People are highly motivated by peer pressure and shared ideas of right and wrong. So taking visible steps to reduce water use – allowing the lawn to go dormant, installing drip irrigation, planting a dryland (xeriscape) garden – will go a long way to shift attitudes in your neighbourhood.

“I pay the same no matter how much I use.” Paying a fixed fee for any utility or resource just doesn’t make sense to me, especially when that resource is scarce and connected to many other valuable uses.

People who save water will also value saving money on their utility bill, and people who want to use more can feel good about paying their fair share. It will be up to water suppliers how they make this work, through water meters or through more radical measures such as paying people to remove lawns or install drip irrigation and greywater systems.

Silva Yard
Caption: Margaret and Robert Silva have planted a dryland (xeriscape) garden in place of lawn, avoiding using tens of thousands of litres of water per year. Drip irrigation and careful hand watering has reduced their outdoor water use even further.

“I don’t know how to…” Fill in the blank – reprogram the irrigation timer, install drip irrigation, plant a xeriscape garden. Helping people learn new skills of water conservation will not only help them save water, it will ripple outwards through the neighbour effect. So water suppliers should start to work together on building skills for water conservation with demonstration gardens, hands-on workshops, or in-house instruction. Community members could also share their successes through public demonstrations and garden tours.

“It’s too expensive, complex, or inconvenient to change my system.” This turns out to be a big one, because large farms and businesses have complex, expensive water and irrigation systems already in place. They also use a lot of water compared to households and domestic gardens. It makes sense to support farmers and others in installing more efficient irrigation equipment, sharing costs or providing incentives through programs like Environmental Farm Plan.

Bringing all of this together will take time, effort, and a shared understanding of the role of water conservation in a healthy, resilient Kettle River Watershed. We will develop long-term strategies at future meetings of water suppliers. How will you fit in?

Graham Watt is the coordinator of the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan for the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary. Contact Graham at plan@kettleriver.caor 250.442.4111.

Kettle River Q&A: What’s happening with the spring runoff?

What’s happening with the spring runoff this year?

If you are wondering about the snowpack levels and the river flows this spring you are not alone.

Ever since the early high water of February and March, people have been asking about what was happening with the runoff this year, what will happen this summer with low flows, and whether this is already a sign of climate change affecting the watershed.

This is a story that is still unfolding, but I will start at the beginning – the headwaters. The Kettle River has no glaciers or large reservoirs that regulate its flow, so we need to understand snow accumulation and the timing of its melt. The snowpack is a kind of reservoir that delivers water slowly over a period of months, providing meltwater for early summer river flows.

Five automated high elevation ‘snow pillow’ stations in the area provide a stark view of the rapid melting that is at least three weeks earlier than the 30-year average. The stations provide the key measure of ‘snow water equivalent’ (SWE), which describes the depth of water in a given snowpack that you would find if you melted it instantly. And the snowpack does seem to be melting almost instantly with the recent high temperatures and weekend rains.

In the high mountains above the Christian Valley, the Grano Creek station now has 3% (just over 1 cm) of the long-term average SWE, and will have no snow any day. That’s the lowest on record – the earliest spring melt – since the station was installed in 1998.

Near the headwaters of the Kettle River, the Barnes Creek station now has no snow, while the Mission Creek station is faring slightly better at 30% of normal. South of the border, the Sentinel Butte station east of Curlew and the new Gold Axe Camp station east of Chesaw both have no snow. You can find the latest data yourself at http://www.nwrfc.noaa.gov/snow/.

So what does all this mean for flows in the Kettle River?

It is probably bad news for river recreation this summer. Already, the warm, wet winter that was so hard on coastal and lower elevation ski resorts in this region gave us an early spring runoff in mid-February that was ten times normal and characteristic of mid-April. A second peak on April 1 was also ten times normal and similar to late-May flows.

Now, the Kettle River is flowing at about 70% of normal volume for late May. With very little snowpack left, the river will likely continue declining for a long low period unless the early summer is cool and very wet.

Unfortunately, the long-term forecast calls for warmer than average conditions across the region. On the positive side, it might be a good year for watermelons and other heat-loving crops. But the long growing season will mean greater evaporation from soil and water and much higher transpiration from plants, both leading to greater water demand from irrigation, outdoor water use, and forests.

This prognosis has already caused a drought state of emergency in Washington State, and coastal British Columbia could face a very tough year for water supplies. Communities in the Southern Interior will have to take great care to monitor water supplies and control water use to soften the impact in our area.

For many people, the low snowpack and warm summer on the way provides the even scarier possibility of major fires in the region. When the snow is gone early the branches, logs and organic matter that litter the forest floor can dry out that much quicker, which can mean a much longer and more dangerous fire season. Already, record warm and dry spring conditions in northern BC and the Yukon have led to large wildfires.

Indeed, NASA has reported that the January-April period of this year was the hottest on record globally, following the record warm 2014. Over 97% of scientists who work in the field agree that adverse climate change is happening and that humans are responsible. There cannot be any more doubt that we must take decisive action to reduce carbon emissions and improve our resilience to the ‘un-natural’ disasters on the way.

Graham Watt is the coordinator of the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan for the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary. Contact Graham at plan@kettleriver.ca or 250.442.4111.