Science forum examines Okanagan water supply

September 19, 2007

Grandmas and scientists, students and politicians, natives and bureaucrats from Canada and the U.S., gathered for the past few days with just one thing in common: An interest in the water of the Okanagan Basin—on both sides of the border.

More than 200 people gathered in Osoyoos at a unique three-day event called the Osoyoos Lake Water Science Forum, which was kicked off with a reception hosted by the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation Sunday afternoon at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre.

With a fee of just $30 for the entire conference, the contributions from a total of 16 sponsors made it possible. But they contributed more than money.

Governments and scientists brought information to the table from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Washington State Department of Ecology, the International Joint Commission, the provincial Ministry of Environment, the Okanagan Basin Water Board, regional districts and communities on both sides of the border, as well as a number of universities.

All gathered with the intent of working to improve the fate of a small, relatively shallow, nutrient-rich, warm desert lake that is the receiver of waters from as far north as Vernon in the Okanagan Valley.

Dr. Kim Hyatt, a research scientist with the federal DFO, noted Osoyoos Lake is like a big pool in a river. Its fate may be dominated by upstream factors because of its small size and it’s at the bottom of a large chain of lakes surrounded by farms and cities, he told delegates.

It was described by Vic Jensen of the environment ministry as a broad, slow-moving river system that runs through the valley, from Wood and Kalamalka Lakes in the north, through Okanagan Lake, Skaha, Vaseux, and the Okanagan River to Osoyoos Lake.

That lake straddles the international border, and exits into the Okanogan River, (with a different spelling) in Washington State, which is a vital part of the Columbia River system, and ultimately feeds into the Pacific Ocean.

The interconnectedness exhibited during the forum was illustrated during the opening in a brief talk by Charlotte Sanders, a councillor with the Osoyoos band, who pointed out that snakes are an important part of the desert. “Snakes take care of mice, but mice plant the sage seeds by taking them deep into the soil. It’s a fine line between the existence of everything in the desert.”

Modesta Betterton, an elder of the Osoyoos Band welcomed delegates by pointing out that water is life. “If you walked in my shoes, you’d know you must never do anything disrespectful around the river or water. There are many legends around water, and about the salmon.

“I’m glad someone’s waking up to the fact the water needs cleaning up,” she added.

She then gave a blessing, asking the creator “to bless each and every one of you and to help you work together for a solution.”

Okanagan Nation Alliance biologist Howie Wright talked about the need for partnerships between scientists, governments and nations; for cultural and public awareness and education; cooperation and collaboration to work on habitat restoration and the restoration of the sockeye salmon to the upper parts of the Okanagan system.

He said they have embarked on a 12-year program to reintroduce the sockeye to Skaha Lake.

Chris Fisher of Colville Confederated Tribes fish and wildlife, said the international boundary is only a political border, not one that is recognized by the tribes on both sides of it, or by the fish and wildlife that pass over it, unrestricted.

“Our tribes are focussed on trying to rehabilitate the river,” he said. “We’ll do anything reasonable to recovering the resources of the Okanogan River system,” he added.

Lionel Dallas, a director of the Osoyoos Lake Water Quality Society, said the water quality of Osoyoos Lake, as sampled during last week’s weekly sampling, is “terrible.

“You used to be able to see the rocks on the bottom of the lake, 30 feet below. Those rocks are covered in yellow now,” he said. Last week’s sampling with a secchi disk showed water clarity only seven feet below the surface.

Dr. Ken Hall told delegates the lake is a reflection of what happens in the watershed, while the sediments tell its history.

Recreating and growing crops in a watershed will have impacts, he warned, noting that a lake is a mosaic of the land uses around it.

Osoyoos is one of the biggest desserts in Canada, and is a “botanists’ wonderland,” he said.

“It’s a beautiful landscape of wildflowers and birds. Such a beautiful watershed must be protected,” he said.

A lake is the depression collecting everything in the watershed, including agricultural runoff, pollution from motorboats, septic field effluent and urban stormwater.

He expressed concern about the septic systems clustered around the Oliver to Osoyoos lowlands on the west side of the valley, because the soils are sandy and gravelly so effluent will flow more quickly through them and into the Okanagan system.

Many people don’t have their systems serviced regularly either, he said.

Climate is also a factor, he noted. When urban stormwater flows after a long dry period between storms, there are higher levels of contaminants in the runoff, he said.

Contaminants in the water vary from trace metals, oil and grease, to pesticides and endocrine disruptors, detergents, pesticides, to plasticizers and hormones, he warned.

Managing water is a balancing act: between inflow and outflow; fish and wildlife and humans; between water for life and water for industrial and recreational purposes; between adequate quantity and satisfactory quality; between surface and groundwater sources—and they’re all connected, Hall said.