As drought persists, a call to conserve water to protect fish

The B.C. government is urging Vancouver Islanders to conserve water to reduce the risk of harm to fish and fish habitat in Island streams and rivers.

Drought conditions are affecting many streams and rivers across the southern half of the province, resulting in very low water flows, particularly on Vancouver Island and the south Okanagan.

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On Thursday, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development classified conditions on eastern Vancouver Island as drought Level 3, which means “very dry” conditions that could lead to serious ecosystem or socio-economic impacts.

B.C. uses a four-level classification system to rank the severity and appropriate level of response to drought. Drought Level 3 calls for voluntary conservation and water-use reductions for all surface water and groundwater users.

“Really the primary concern is just the risk of impact to fish and fish habitat,” said George Roman, manager of the River Forecast Centre and Flood Safety, Water Management Branch.

The key streams of concern are the Koksilah River, the Chemainus River, Millstone River, French Creek River, Tsolum River, Black Creek River and Fulford Creek on Salt Spring Island.

“The last three weeks have been bone dry,” said Roman.

“In Victoria, we haven’t seen any rain since Aug. 30 and even that was a really light shower. It’s not unusual to have dry weather in August and September, but it was well below average, especially the last three weeks. That’s why we’re urging and putting out conservation messaging.”

Along with the risk to fish habitat is the impact on the culture and values of First Nations around those fish populations, he said.

“And every bit of conservation helps, whether it’s farmers, or household use, especially outdoor water use which doesn’t go back to the river and industrial water use. So the more water conserved, the more will be left in the rivers and streams for the fish, other ecosystems as well as other users downstream.”

The dry conditions are not a significant concern for Greater Victoria because there is a lot of storage in the Sooke Lake Reservoir, he said. On Friday, the reservoir was 72.4 per cent full.

The ministry’s west coast staff in Nanaimo has sent notification to licensees on all rivers, encouraging maximum conservation.

Roman said there have been some really great conservation stories in the province. North of Merritt, where the Cold­water River watershed is at the “extremely dry” drought Level 4, farmers have committed to a voluntary shutdown of all their irrigation this week.

“They’re really stepping up and doing what’s right for fish health,” said Roman.

“I also know there’s been a lot of work in the Koksilah River watershed near Duncan. Farmers, who have licences for irrigation, are watering their crops on a rotating basis, four days on, four days off.”

Sometimes there’s a myth of abundance in B.C., said Roman.

“We do have dry summers and we do have risk of drought and it is possible that one day the Island will face a really severe drought that affects household use also. We’ve never come close to running out of water in Victoria, but it’s not impossible.”

Roman pointed to the severe and widespread droughts in Oregon and Washington and their wildfires, which have brought smoky skies to the south coast of B.C.

In Oregon, 3.1 million people are experiencing drought conditions, with more than 59 per cent of the state in severe, extreme or exceptional drought.

“That could have been us if the weather pattern had shifted north by 600 kilometres, which has happened in some years,” Roman said

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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