Dire warning from scientist: We must use less water

September 19, 2007

The Okanagan is speeding toward a tipping point and we can either prepare now or react in a panic later when the water problems will be either insoluble or intractable.

That was the warning from Clint Alexander, a scientist who specializes in integrating the biological, physical and economic components of environmental problems.

He was using computer modelling to look ahead to 2050, when his prediction was that there could be 800,000 humans living in the Okanagan Basin.

They would be dealing with a 40 per cent reduction in total net inflow of water to the basin, earlier peak runoff and loss of the high volume flows.

Actions needed will not be popular, and bold leadership and more public awareness about water issues will be required to improve the situation.

People will have to change their values, he warned. Right now, Okanagan Valley residents’ per capita use of water is simply amazing, he commented.

People must be more efficient in their use of water, and he suggested some moves which could be taken to improve the long-term situation. He challenged the forum to come up with more ideas.

For instance, the Okanagan Basin water budget needs to be updated with a water supply and demand study, then extraction proposals approved or rejected based on that budget, rather than on politics.

Surface and groundwater licencing restrictions should be legislated and enforced.

We should be actively planning for water license buy-backs.

Ecosystem rights to water should be entrenched, and that water should be removed from the supply that is considered available for allocation. “It may not be there later,” he said.

Endangered species legislation in B.C. and Canada should be strengthened, he said.

Federal research scientist Dr. Kim Hyatt also warned that change is something you can’t escape. “We’re seeing air temperatures that are the warmest they’ve been for a thousand years.”

As climate change continues, he said it will influence every species that lives on land or in the water, particularly the sockeye who make an arduous 900 kilometre migration through the Columbia and Okanagan River systems to spawn in the Okanagan Valley. A delay caused by warmer water temperatures, because their migration is triggered by temperature, could make an alarming difference, he said.

In response to a question from a delegate, Hyatt said taxpayers must insist on more coordinated efforts to improve the situation, because there must be a political will before those working in government can work with other governments and agencies toward a common goal.

Steve Matthews, head of the fish and wildlife section for this region for the environment ministry, suggested a smaller working group might be a good start.

He said there are already some partnerships working to restore habitat. For instance, the Okanagan River has been dyked, dammed, developed and its banks denuded over the years, but efforts are now underway to begin some restoration work.

The plan is to set back the river’s dykes in a one-kilometre section to allow a return to the meandering channel that represented so much more and better habitat for fish and wildlife, but he said the cost is estimated at $2 million.

Improved water quality in the Okanagan Basin is a benefit for fish, wildlife and humans, Matthews said.