Category Archives: columns

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.

Kettle River Q&A: Hitting the ground running

It’s often a concern when environmental plans are completed that they will do little more than sit on a shelf. Thanks to the leadership and dedication of the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary and many other project partners, the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan has ‘hit the ground running’ and has a number of exciting projects underway and in the works.

At their first meeting of the implementation phase, the Steering Committee for the Watershed Management Plan recently reviewed ideas of how to coordinate the many aspects of implementation over the next three years. “This stage is really exciting,” said Rolly Russell, Director for Area D / Rural Grand Forks and Chair of the Implementation Team. “After all the dialogue over the past few years, now we’re making things happen.  To me, this is where the fun work starts – where we start doing, guided by a great deal of diverse thought and dialogue!”

“When you think back to where we were three years ago, you realize how far we have come, with a report based on strong consultation with a cross section of the community,” said Marguerite Rotvold, who has represented the Village of Midway on the Steering Committee since 2010.

“Implementing the strategies in this plan is also consistent with the high priority given by West Boundary residents to protecting the health of the environment in the broad community survey,” said Vicki Gee, RDKB Director for Area E / West Boundary.

At the RDKB, the Plan will be used to inform a wide variety of decisions that have an impact on water. “I’m looking forward to using the plan when we consider development applications and land use planning,” said Donna Dean, Manager of Planning and Development for the RDKB. “It’s really a lens to help consider and decrease the impacts on water from all kinds of activities.”

Implementation of the Plan will also enable residents of all parts of the Boundary to work ‘hands-on’ on water conservation, stream bank restoration, or other projects. “As this plan rolls out, there will be so many opportunities for communities to work on individual projects that will showcase what we can do together as a region,” said Grace McGregor, Chair of the Steering Committee and the RDKB Board of Directors.

Several projects are already moving from plans to reality this year. Habitat restoration projects are being planned for Beaverdell, Christian Valley, and the Upper Granby to support recovery of the endangered Speckled Dace minnow, thanks to grants from Environment Canada’s Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk and the Okanagan Chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada. The Christina Lake Stewardship Society is planning a lakeshore restoration demonstration and native plant nursery, and funding proposals have been submitted for bank stabilization and fish habitat improvement on the Kettle River beside the historic Sion Cemetery west of Grand Forks.

A plan is being developed to bring together all of the water suppliers in a water conservation strategy and education program, and a ‘learning garden’ at the Grand Forks Aquatic Centre will demonstrate water conservation, soil improvement, and an ecological landscape design system called ‘permaculture’.

In a telephone interview, Rick Simpson, who represented BC Wildlife Federation and the Grand Forks Wildlife Association on the Stakeholder Advisory Group, emphasized the long-term commitment required: “This watershed plan will need to be here for a long time, and we’ll need to keep the continuity of effort and leadership that has been given so far – and that is really founded on a wide network in the community that care for the watershed and want to do right by it.”

Simpson is speaking of volunteers like Brad Siemens of the Grand Forks Wildlife Association, who for two years has taken us on river tours to look at fish habitat conditions. I also think of community members from many different organizations who clean up riverbanks and backroads, monitor fish and bird populations, or raise substantial funds for conservation and restoration.

As the coordinator for the planning process and now implementation I am truly excited to continue working with this great network of people to move the Plan to reality, and look forward to meeting with you in the field or in the board room as part of the many projects going forward.

Graham Watt is Coordinator of the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan for the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, and can be reached at plan@kettleriver.ca / 250.442.4111.

 

Kettle River Q&A – Small fish with a big role for the Kettle River

Unless you are really into fish, you have probably not heard of the Speckled Dace.

The Speckled Dace (Rhinichthys osculus) is a small minnow (5-9 cm) that is relatively abundant in the Kettle River watershed and in many waterways in the western United States.

The Speckled Dace is a small minnow found in the Kettle River watershed and western United States. Illustration by Nichola Lytle, Pink Dog Designs
The Speckled Dace is a small minnow found in the Kettle River watershed and western United States. Illustration by Nichola Lytle, Pink Dog Designs

But the Kettle River system is the only place in Canada that the Speckled Dace occurs, and if its Canadian population were to be severely harmed, the presence of Cascade Falls would prevent it from naturally returning to the watershed. This fact has led to the listing of the Speckled Dace as Endangered in Schedule 1 of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Province of British Columbia are currently working on a Recovery Strategy for the Speckled Dace. The draft strategy, released for public consultation this fall, identified critical habitat areas in the West Kettle near Beaverdell, the main Kettle in the Christian Valley, and the Granby River near Burrell Creek. The main strategies are to improve key knowledge on the life cycle and habitat use of Speckled Dace and maintain current distribution and abundance within natural ranges.

Several studies have confirmed that Speckled Dace are widely distributed in the watershed, with a population of over 900,000 mature fish. It makes use of riffles, runs and pools, eating aquatic insects and algae with its sucker-like mouth. Little is known about their spawning behaviour, but it is thought to occur in mid-July, with fry appearing in early August.

Some of the main threats to Speckled Dace are low river flows and siltation from road building, forestry, and livestock access. According to Lesley Peterson, a biologist with Trout Unlimited Canada in Calgary, “these issues are also detrimental to Rainbow Trout which not only require cold, clean water but also healthy and functioning riparian areas.”

The geographic isolation has also made the population upstream of Cascade Falls genetically unique. But apart from that most anglers would find their greatest value in their place in the food chain for larger fish-eating predators like adult rainbow trout.

Because of their interest in supporting healthy aquatic ecosystems and rainbow trout in the Kettle River, the Okanagan Chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada is supporting projects in the Kettle River, in partnership with the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, Golder Associates, Granby Wilderness Society, and other partners.

Through the efforts of their Okanagan Chapter, Trout Unlimited Canada has received funding through the RBC Blue Water Project to conduct enhancement and restoration projects along the Kettle River system. “Through education, stewardship, and on-the-ground projects, our goal is to improve the outlook for not only Speckled Dace, but Rainbow Trout and the Kettle River itself,” said Peterson.

The team is currently identifying potential project sites and preparing background information on sediment reduction and riparian habitat restoration. They are applying for further funding to support the project but would like to initiate work in at least one site by the spring of 2015.

—Graham Watt is 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: The Twisted Tale of a MAD Trout

Adapted from a presentation to classes at West Boundary Elementary, May 2014.

Today I want to tell you the story of Maddy the trout. This is a true story, kind of. One that requires a bit of imagination, and no fear of statistics of a very basic kind.

Maddy is a rainbow trout (formally Oncorhynchus mykiss for those who like Latin), a flashy, sporty fish of rivers and lakes across the land, good eating for birds and bears and humans alike. People have been known to travel far and wide to cast a fly for Maddy and her kin. In the Kettle and Granby Rivers, she can grow as long as your arm, if you let her.

Maddy the rainbow trout. Illustration © Dustin LaCroix.
Maddy the rainbow trout. Illustration © Dustin LaCroix.

Maddy the trout is a generous type, tolerating hairy hands and painful hooks to some degree, happy to hide away in deep pools or run the river hunting for scuttling critters.

In the hottest days of summer she’ll seek the coldest places, for when the water warms above 20 degrees she quickly tires. When the river runs low, Maddy has fewer and fewer places to hide, as once-deep holes are filled up with cobbles and gravel, less large logs and shady spots provide cooling cover, and safe cool places disappear as the water falls. And then, when the hiding places are the least, they fill with lines and hooks and nets – and sneaks.

Maddy gives of herself if we give back. But she’s MAD now (here’s the statistics).

Trout do best when the river is running medium-full – not too fast, lots of room to swim and hide and eat – somewhere between the average flow for the whole year (Mean, meaning average, Annual Discharge or MAD), and 20% or 1/5 the flow at MAD. (Mean Annual Discharge downstream of Grand Forks is about 83 cubic meters per second – a little less than a backyard swimming pool going by every second).

Below 20% of MAD, it’s still okay – but with the river warming up and habitat degraded, things aren’t as good as at higher flows. Below 10% of MAD (often in August-September), the river gets narrower and gravel bars are above the surface, meaning that available habitat quickly shrinks as the water heats up to lethal levels.

By 5% of MAD there’s almost nothing left – a few deep holes between sections of river that you can walk across. And the river can go from above 20% down to 5% in a matter of a few weeks – not a lot of time for water restrictions to kick in. Five percent of MAD is less than 5 cubic meters per second – less water than could fill a small cargo van.

Scientists from the provincial government have looked at flows and habitat around the Kettle and Granby Rivers, and are studying changes to fisheries and water regulations to help protect the trout and other needs of the river. The Kettle River Watershed Management Plan is examining these options to give advice on the best ways for the government, for our communities, and for fishers and people along the river to help.

So what might Maddy’s advice be to us?

Don’t cut down trees near the shore, plant them back instead (cottonwood, rose, native willow all suit me fine). Fix eroding slopes that choke my summer home with sediment. Put logs and boulders in just the right places to deepen holes where they have filled in. Use much less water, especially in summer – those lawns will grow green again in fall! Keep your trash and trucks and pollution well away from me. Know the fishing and water regulations and report poachers and polluters (1-877-952-RAPP). And stop with all the hooks when the flows are lower and the water’s warm – even if you catch me and let me go, I might not make it to when the waters become cool once more.

Graham Watt is coordinator of the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan for the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, working with a Stakeholder Advisory Group of people from across the region. Contact Graham at plan@kettleriver.ca or 250.442.4111.

Kettle River Q&A: What did we learn about issues on the water’s edge?

On April 15, nearly 40 residents of the Boundary came together in Grand Forks to learn and share ideas about issues at the water’s edge – floodplains, riparian areas, and wetlands.

The Regional District of Kootenay Boundary held the meeting to gather input on key issues in the Kettle River Watershed Management Plan before the plan is finalized.

I gave a presentation (pdf)with photos showing the good, the bad and the ugly. We also learned from Jenny Coleshill of the Granby Wilderness Society about the importance of riparian areas and her current work to assess how people are impacting them.

Participant Donna Seminoff asked a question that bears repeating: “Can you break it down for everyone – what happens when people cut trees and shrubs on the shoreline?”

The long answer depends on the site, the soils, and the stream or lake setting. But here’s the short of it:

Trees, shrubs and native plants have large root systems that buffer moving water during floods. When we remove them and replace them with non-native grass, which has much shallower roots, high waters can easily undermine banks and cause them to slump, and water running over the surface can carve into the banks. The added sand, gravel and stones in turn provide even more material and energy to the river, leading it to spread out further downstream.

Mown grass can't hold the bank together during heavy rains
Mown grass can’t hold the bank together during heavy rains

Participants worked in groups on four main topics: limiting risks from flooding and erosion; improving riparian areas near development; controlling impacts of resource roads on stream health; and encouraging agricultural protection and conservation of streams and wetlands.

Mark Andison, RDKB General Manager of Operations, noted that the public raised a broad range of potential solutions, “everything from re-establishing the Granby Dam, to dredging gravel, to giving out trees and shrubs for shoreline property owners.”

Some of the other suggestions included implementing ecosystem-based stewardship in resource management areas, building skills and providing a ‘toolkit’ for grassroots monitoring and stewardship, developing incentives and land-use control rules for developing near water, and regulation and pricing that makes resource users and polluters pay more of the costs of regulation and impacts on other users.

I spoke with Doug Fossen from the Kettle River Stockmen’s Association after the event for his perspective. Fossen said that much work is being done on improving both private lands and range management areas, and that funding is available for many projects – “working with the Environmental Farm Plan you can access funding for off-site watering, riparian fencing, irrigation improvements or other projects.”

We are following up on the meeting with a discussion paper that works through the issues and solutions and outlines concrete, practical actions to reduce risks and improve environmental conditions.

Thank you to the RDKB for hosting the event and all of the participants for their involvement.

– 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. Email plan@kettleriver.ca