Upper Kootenay residents’ water concerns captured in new report

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With dire drought conditions across most of British Columbia, the summer of 2023 is unfolding as predicted. Early, rapid snowmelt combined with a hot, dry May set the stage for what’s already declared the worst wildfire year on record in B.C. and across Canada, and we’re only halfway through the summer.

According to the provincial government’s zero to five drought level rating system, the West Kootenays have been sitting at a consistent Level 4 since early July. At Drought Level 4, negative impacts on communities and ecosystems due to dry conditions are considered “likely”. Evidence of drought is visible in increasing water restrictions, low flows in rivers and streams, and extreme fire danger. Aggressive wildfires continue to plague local communities after destroying homes in ʔaq’am and forcing evacuation orders and alerts up across the East Kootenays.

To help track these climate impacts on water, Living Lakes Canada is building a network of water and climate monitoring stations across the Columbia Basin. What’s unique about this project is the local Indigenous and non-Indigenous community feedback helping decide where monitoring stations are installed.

A series of public meetings were held in Cranbrook, Wasa, Jaffray and online in early 2023 to collect and document local residents’ water concerns and priorities for the Upper Kootenay hydrologic region, which includes the communities of Yaq̓ it ʔa·knuqⱡi ‘it, and ʔaq’am. One-on-one consultations were also held, and a survey circulated. Feedback was provided by 60 people from a broad range of sectors and demographics. 

In the Upper Kootenay region, the two biggest demographics to participate were those who identified as community members (51.7%) and water stewardship/non-profit group members (15%) and followed by regional government (10%) and industry/private (8.3%).

Participants had the opportunity to suggest specific streams, creeks, lakes, ponds, watersheds and aquifers they would like to see monitored. They were also invited to share what their priorities were for more monitoring.

“What stood out to me in the Upper Kootenay hydrologic region compared to the others was the value that people in this region place upon local lakes,” said Paige Thurston, Program Manager for the Columbia Basin Water Monitoring Framework. “The feedback we received also highlighted the strong connection that people in the Upper Kootenay have with water, particularly those living in rural areas.”

Many concerns related to water supply, water quality, emergency preparedness and the impacts of human activity on local water bodies. For lakes and streams, participants identified drinking water, fish habitat, and agricultural impacts as the top three priorities for water ‘quantity’ monitoring. For water ‘quality’ monitoring, participants prioritized drinking water followed by industry
impacts and recreation.

Other prominent concerns centred around the health of local lakes and the impacts of recreational boating as well as aquifer depletion, increasing demands on groundwater, and reduced supply in wells. Participants were also concerned about melting glaciers and declining snowpacks, and the impacts of industry and wildfire on high elevation ecosystems. Read the full report here.

Living Lakes Canada is developing a shortlist of sites based on the community feedback in combination with scientific parameters including the results of a data gap analysis. Those who provided feedback will have the opportunity to review the shortlist before a final selection is made and monitoring is implemented in the fall. Preliminary data from the project will be made available in 2024 through the Columbia Basin Water Hub database (www.cbwaterhub.ca).

“Our team is looking forward to continuing to work with the participants in the next phases of the project,” said Thurston.

For more information about the Columbia Basin Water Monitoring Framework project, including a full-length report on its 2022 pilot implementation in the Columbia Valley, Elk River Valley and Slocan Valley/North Kootenay Lake regions, visit www.livinglakescanada.ca/cbwmf.

Any questions can be directed at Upper Kootenay Local Reference Group Coordinator Nowell Berg at uk.lrg@livinglakescanada.ca.

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