Water quality at risk due to staff shortfall

April 17, 2009

The provincial environment ministry simply doesn’t have the resources to deal with emerging issues related to protection of water quality and quantity, admits the senior environmental impact biologist for the environment ministry in Penticton.

Vic Jensen was speaking to the Okanagan Water Stewardship Council about Okanagan Lake, and listing some of the current challenges, such as population growth, new contaminants, climate change-related unknowns and the impacts of mountain pine beetle on the watershed.

In response to a question, he admitted they rely on such funds as the Okanagan Basin Water Board grants to look into such issues. He feels it’s important that local government policies include not connecting sewers to encourage development without first doing SHIM (sensitive habitat inventory mapping) mapping to ensure the information is available to provide adequate environmental protection before development moves in.

It’s important to consider watershed stability and think about the cumulative effects of activity in the watershed, he noted.

Phosphorus increases, driven by watershed runoff in the spring, is an issue the OBWB should be looking into more, he suggested.

Kelowna’s manager of utility services, Don Degen, noted they’ve monitored increases in phosphorus loading from stormwater and traced it primarily to the use of it on playing fields or lawns.

Jensen said Kelowna does great work on stormwater control and monitoring.

Treatment of urban stormwater is important, as is monitoring outfalls, and he said it’s important that data be integrated better, so monitoring is done collaboratively.

He suggested perhaps a link to the OBWB website might be one way to integrate information.

Jensen told board members in the past 30 years Okanagan Lake has gone from being nutrient-rich but translucent, to being nutrient-poor but clear.

In such a large lake it takes decades for the removal of phosphorus to become visible, but a program of removal of the element from Okanagan wastewater in treatment plants before discharge to the lake, is largely responsible for the transformation.

Jensen calls Okanagan Lake an under-valued disposal system, because of the amount of wastewater that’s discharged into it, yet it provides drinking water for 100,000 people.

In addition, it has value as a tourism draw, for recreation, increases property values, for aquatic ecosystems and esthetics, he noted.