Water worries rising for businesses in B.C.

Idled dams, reduced harvest and curtailed salmon fishing some of the fallout if hot, dry weather continues

In B.C., a warm winter followed by a hot, dry spring could lead to serious drought conditions later this summer | Shutterstock

There are usually birds flying around Tim Mock’s farm near Duncan and woodland animals rustling around in the brush surrounding his property.

Not this year.

“It’s dry, no doubt about that,” Mock said. “We’ve noticed a lot less flies. … We’re noticing fewer swallows, we’re not hearing as many little reptilian creatures, frogs and things like that, because the wet areas dried out so quickly.”

In his 67 years living near the Cowichan River, chicken farmer Bob Crawford has never seen the river this low.

“We just went through haying, we’re about three weeks early,” he said. “Everything is drying out big time – our fields are drying out behind us as we hay.”

British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations is warning that very dry conditions seen this early in the year could translate to a more severe drought later in the summer. 

A warm winter means that snowpack levels are at historically low levels, partly because the snow has melted early. May and June have been unusually dry and warm.

With the snowpack acting as a natural reservoir that slowly feeds streams and lakes throughout the summer, that combination of conditions could mean bad news for industries like agriculture and fisheries.

“Usually we’re cautious to raise concern too early in the season because it’s not unusual for us to get cooler and wetter conditions in June and sometimes the early part of July,” said Valerie Cameron, water stewardship manager with the ministry. But rain is “not anywhere on the forecast” for the near future, so the province is preparing for a serious drought.

Farmers are being advised to use the water now while they can, and to concentrate on their highest-value operations, like orchards and vineyards. 

Farmers who grow hay, like Crawford, should count on getting in only one early cut, rather than the two or three cuts they usually harvest over the course of the summer.

Baked fish

Fish could also be affected if the warm, dry temperatures continue. If fish such as salmon get too hot while travelling back to inland spawning grounds, they become sluggish and are more likely to die before they can reproduce.

“When there’s a low flow and a lot of sun, the water will warm up to extreme temperatures,” said Tony Farrell, a professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia. “The reason the Fraser stays reasonably cool during the summer is because a lot of the freshet is from snowmelt. If there’s no snowpack, that’s not contributing [cold water].”

Gillnetters enter the Fraser River | Max Lindenthaler, Shutterstock

If the Fraser River gets too warm, fishing in the river is curtailed to protect the stocks. A combination of low water levels and warm water has led to mass fish mortalities in the past, Farrell said, a phenomenon that has increased in B.C. over the past 30 years.

During a severe drought in 2009, Cameron was working in the Thompson Cariboo region and witnessed mass die-offs of fish in all of the streams being monitored in the area. 

Reining in water use

That drought prompted changes to B.C.’s Water Act. The province’s new Water Sustainability Act is expected to be in effect by 2016. Before the new act, B.C. had no legislation setting out the provincial government’s response to severe water scarcity. The province will certainly experience droughts in the future: the long-term prediction for B.C. calls for warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers.

Currently, the most senior water licence holders take precedence over newer licence holders. But in the future when droughts occur, the new act will allow all water licence holders to take 250 litres a day for household needs and also protect water flows for fish. 

Existing water licences will be reviewed every 30 years to make sure licence holders still require the full volume and have water conservation measures in place, although the reviews won’t start until 2046.

The act will also require a licence for groundwater extraction, something that currently isn’t required in B.C. That’s been a key water management gap for the province, since groundwater and surface water are linked. 

Snowpack levels across the province are at very low levels because of a warm winter and early melt | BC River Forecast Centre

“In drought in the past what’s happened is we haven’t been able to license some streams,” Cameron said. “What they’ll do is say, ‘Well, I’ll build a well, then,’ and just a few metres away from a stream, they’ll sink a well. It draws down the water table so the stream is impacted.”

B.C. may be gearing up for a dry summer, but California and Washington state have shown just how bad it can get. A severe drought in California has hiked food prices and sparked stricter water use regulations. Washington’s governor declared a state of emergency on May 15, with the snowpack in that state at historically low levels. 

To save fish, Washington state is moving water from stream to stream in an attempt to keep water flowing and is even moving salmon and trout to cooler streams. The state estimates the drought will cost Washington’s agriculture industry $1.2 billion this year.

Volatile future

A recent study found that by 2100, glaciers on B.C.’s coast will be reduced by half, while glaciers in the Rocky Mountains could shrink by 90% or disappear altogether. 

That loss could have an effect on water flows in some watersheds, notably in the Columbia River Basin – the site of several of B.C.’s hydroelectric dams.

“Glaciers in the Columbia basin provide up to 20% of the late August and early September flows, especially in dry years,” said Brian Menounos, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Northern British Columbia and one of the authors of the study.

“So even though glaciers represent something like 5% of the total area of the Canadian portion of the Columbia, they provide that water when the seasonal snowpack is not there because of drought conditions.” 

The Purcell range in the West Kootenays on June 17. As of June 1, snowpack levels in the region were at 30% of normal | Dave St. Denis

At the same time, a warming climate will come with a 10% to 15% increase of precipitation. Without the natural reservoir provided by snowpacks and glaciers, we’ll have to manage an overabundance of water in winter and scarcity in the summer.

BC Hydro’s large reservoirs for the Peace and Columbia River dams can hold enough water to manage supply for several years, said Mark Poweska, the company’s vice-president of power generation. But this year’s dry conditions have idled smaller dams on Vancouver Island and in the Lower Mainland. 

Washington state’s severe drought has dramatically lowered the Arrow Lakes reservoir in the Kootenays because of a provision in the Columbia River Treaty allowing water to be sent, for a fee, to the United States in dry years.

BC Hydro has modelled future climate conditions but has yet to determine how those changes will affect operations for the utility, Poweska said.

“We can deal with the short-term peaks and valleys, year to year,” he said. “Early indications are that on average we’ll have higher precipitation into our reservoirs, but the seasonality of those things is going to change.”