About Anna Warwick Sears

Anna Warwick Sears is the Executive Director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board, a local government agency focused on collaborative water resource management in the arid interior of B.C. Dr. Sears received a PhD in population biology at the University of California – Davis, modeling competition for resources in arid environments. Before coming to the Okanagan in 2006, Anna was the Research Director of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, an environmental NGO in California, leading watershed restoration and planning initiatives. Anna is passionate about using science to solve real-world problems and building bridges with community stakeholders. In her free time, she likes to explore the food and wine of the Okanagan valley. She lives in Kelowna.

Lift a long, cool glass of gratitude

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.” – Dan Quayle

Crammed in a cab with Bob Sanford and David Brooks, listening to adventure stories about Middle East river agreements.  I jumped in with one of my few international water anecdotes. “An Ethiopian hydrologist told me that water security – for them – is five litres a day, per person, within a three kilometre walking distance.”

A Kenyan farmer, building a catchment for her water supply. Photo credit: Eva Kaye-Zwiebe

The driver gave a derisive cough. “That guy must have been from the countryside,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m from Addis Ababa. We used at least six litres, and we didn’t have to walk for it.”

Strolling from kitchen to bathroom, I might use 100 litres of pure, fresh water a day without giving a second thought. If I wander out and turn on my sprinklers, that might go to 1000. And I’m average!

Let’s raise a glass to drinking water: so cheap, so abundant, we wash our cars with it. If it weren’t for the empty plastic bottles lying around, water would be almost invisible.

Back at home, I asked some guys next to me at a restaurant what they thought about drinking water. “We don’t think about it. We don’t want to. We just want to be able to get it.” Tommy and Ken were executives from the auto industry, and after some discussion, they admitted to being skeptical about climate change, but aware there were problems out there. “Without water there’s no life. Look at the Dead Sea, it’s dying!” Continue reading

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Learning from the landscape: cultivating a sense of place in the Okanagan.

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.” Dorothea Mackellar

If you want to understand water in the Okanagan, don’t look at the lake, look at the hillside.

Above the lakes and vineyards, the beauty of the Okanagan is marked by sparseness.

Sometime last week, I found myself scrambling up a rocky slope near Okanagan Falls – skirting patches of cactus, breathing heavily, but managing to keep up. It was late afternoon and we were trying to make it to the rattlesnake den before dark.

Off toward Skaha Lake, swallows circling on the updrafts; underfoot, wildflowers exploding through the sagebrush and bunchgrass: shootings stars, locoweed, and tiny desert annuals with almost-remembered Latin names.

This is a dry, bony landscape.

Although my work has led me to water, for a long time I was a student of the desert – how life hangs on in these harsh conditions.

This huge mother snake waited unperturbed while Brock Dolman took her picture.

That afternoon, the snakes cooperated. We saw five or six, coiled in rest, or moving slowly to deeper crevices – there were a few gentle rattles, but we’d come in peace and with an attitude of respect. I let the herpetologists lead the way, keeping a conservative distance.

Just as the light began to fail the clouds opened up, and we ran back to the house in the rain. Continue reading

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Nature is a tough mother: adventures in water supply and demand

Live in the questions, and gradually, and almost without noticing, you will enter the answers and live them also.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

What does water sustainability look like?  How will we know when we get there?

With climate now a moving target, sustainability – as a concept – may lend a false sense of future security.

These green pastures probably aren’t a place we actually arrive – a utopia of living roofs, light rail, and urban agriculture. Instead, I’ve been trying to think of sustainability as adapting to whatever change happens – while protecting the systems of our little planet for those who come later.

“Resilience” captures the same idea – the capacity to rebound and rebuild after a forest fire, or like our immune systems, to keep us healthy in a world of germs.

For water management – like everything – to reach a state of readiness, we need to start with what we know, pursue the “known unknowns,” and (hopefully) reveal the unknowns we’ve never considered.

In this spirit, over the past six years, a group of agencies and researchers has undertaken a water supply and demand assessment of the Okanagan: looking for practical paths forward, so that decisions can be based on science, information gaps are uncovered, and we get a better idea of what to expect from climate change.

There is a lot of history. The Okanagan has had water shortages since irrigated agriculture arrived more than 100 years ago. In the past, we’ve taken a supply-side approach, building dams and diversions and drainage ditches. But if anything, the balancing act has become more difficult.

The challenge is the inexorability of change. More people come in, more fields are planted, and we start to recognize that fish want water too. Town councils ask, “Is there a real concern? Are we going to run out of water?” Continue reading

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Think globally – get insurance locally

“…and chaos in the elements. The temperatures unbalanced, grand snow mountains – hard firm glaciers – will melt and disappear. Rivers and lakes becoming scarce …” – Tibetan poem on global warming

The weather is changing globally, but it’s the sewer backed-up that will bring climate change home to many Canadians.

Refueling the donkey - posted on Facebook.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with the implications and magnitude of global warming. It’s hard to absorb something this vast, although I know it’s important to make a shift in the scale of my perspective.

Sea level change is a good example. Tides are rising because of simple physics: global temperatures are rising, water expands as it gets warmer, and melting ice caps grow the pool. It’s dramatic but totally predictable. Coastal communities are weighing options for higher dikes, raising homes on stilts, or relocating neighbourhoods. The island nation of Kiribati is considering a move to Fiji.

This is big. Continue reading

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Eating our water: no place for complacency on World Water Day

By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stressed conditions. The lack of water limits farmers’ ability to produce enough food to eat or earn a living.” – UN World Water Day 2012 website

One man roasting a goat, six others giving direction. Borrowed from Lizzie King, who has spent many years studying rangeland restoration with the Maasai of Kenya.

Water and Food Security is the theme of World Water Day – March 22nd, 2012. Every food crop, all meat production, and inland fisheries from Amsterdam to Zanzibar depend on water.

Here, food security once meant the annual migration of millions of sockeye, traveling up the Okanagan River. Fish, wild berries, and game were reliable food for Okanagan peoples for millennia. Now, with 300,000 people in the valley, food security is (like most other places) mostly about land and irrigation water. Continue reading

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Of toilets and bird sanctuaries: diversions in the water cycle

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

At the San Francisco Exploratorium there is a drinking fountain made from a toilet. It’s a brand new toilet, fed by the cold, pure waters of the California coast range, yet oddly disturbing. Would you bend your head and take refreshment?

Toilet drinking fountain

It's eerily disturbing to see a drinking fountain made from a toilet.

Modern plumbing must be somewhere near the apex of civilization, carrying away everything smelly and unclean, and freeing us from water-borne disease. Stuff just goes away and we don’t give it another thought. “Water is the universal solvent” my chemistry teacher said.

But water and waste don’t really go away. For much of the world it’s a good rule of thumb to live upstream. Here in Canada, we have the high technology to clean and polish our effluent, and voilà, it’s ready for “recycling”. I’m quite in awe of this process: huge volumes, unusual innovations, and bursts of controversy. Continue reading

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Everything you wanted to know about watershed governance

The need for collaboration is especially clear for water. Few things are so intimately linked with life and prosperity.“ - Brandes, Marshall, and Sears

The biggest watershed new stories are usually about conflicts; lately in BC, this means mines and pipelines. People want jobs, but they also want BC to be beautiful.  What’s the  balance?  In the spirit of Building Bridges, it was a pleasure to join forces with Oliver Brandes (of the Polis Institute), and David Marshall (from the Fraser Basin Council) on an op-ed for the Vancouver Sun, promoting watershed collaboration.

Water leaders of the future.

The article grew from a watershed gathering held in Vancouver in late January – a crash course on collaboration, and a chance to learn what other groups are doing in BC. Basically, we’ve all been going it alone, with little formal communication between the Island, the Fraser, the Columbia, the Okanagan, and other watersheds.

Our op-ed focused on collaboration as a principle for watershed management, but we purposely didn’t dig into watershed governance because it hasn’t been as well-defined in public conversation. My impression at the gathering was that governance means different things to different people. Here, I want to share my sense of the common threads.

In a perfect world, environmental agencies would have lots of boots on the ground, and excellent data on natural resources and economics. They’d be making decisions that suit local needs and fund health care and education province-wide. Instead, the ministries are shrinking, we have pared-down budgets and high demand for raw materials. Yet we still need to protect water sources. We have to do more with less, and do more, regardless. Continue reading

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A Parable of Weeds: change, adaptation and leadership

For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” – John F. Kennedy

It’s startling (and creepy) to swim into a milfoil bed – an unexpected brush against your side, a light tug at your ankles …Yikes! Is that a fish?... Some people won’t swim in the lake; and American newspapers even publish stories about “milfoil-related” panics and fatalities.  We don’t want lakes to be like swimming pools, but it’s disconcerting to know that this invasive plant is here to stay, and we have to learn to live with it.

Cleaning the beaches, circa 1974

This post is about living with change – changing landscapes, changing water supplies, changing culture and population. We have to be ready and able to change too. What can we save? Where should we throw the greatest effort? Who will lead?

The globalization of weeds (and weedy animals) seems unstoppable, coming wave after wave.  As a student, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility and occasional despair. I imagine it’s the same for students of glaciology – watching the melt. Invasive species are a lot like climate change. Continue reading

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Water and the Future

Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.” – Jim Dator

Sometimes I can’t resist philosophical bones thrown by speakers on the internet. One recent video was on changing spending behaviour to save money, but it introduced the interesting idea of a wrestling match between our present and future selves.

A thoughtful woman writer from a Pompeii fresco. Someone who might appreciate a bit of advice from the future.

It’s an unequal competition.  In the present, I want to have hot apple pie and lie on the couch. My future self would prefer me to eat lightly and exercise more, but she isn’t around to speak for her interests. Instead, she relies on my fuzzy and sometimes skeptical sense of cause and effect: “Will this latte really make me fat and broke in 20 years?

We regularly remind each other about saving resources for our grandchildren. There are many changes, small and big, that individuals and communities can make, adding up to water savings, energy savings, and money in the bank. But how do we move from “knowing what to do” to actually doing it? Continue reading

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Why I stopped worrying and learned to love Water Act Modernization

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” ― Julian of Norwich

The other night I gave a talk to the North Okanagan Naturalists Club: a group of lively, mostly retired folks, interested in parks, birding and botany.  Given only half an hour, and asked to cover the spectrum of water issues, I bounced along topics relating to biology and the environment, trying to build a bridge between this nature theme and the nuts and bolts of water management.

A cross section of Okanagan aquifers, from the Okanagan Waterscape Poster ( see: www.obwb.ca/okanagan_waterscapes).

Hands shot up at the end of the talk, launching into a public discussion on natural resources.  Rather than fish and riparian restoration, the Naturalists wanted to talk about water agreements with the Americans, Okanagan population growth, and water law.

One woman in the third row, stood up and said, “What’s wrong with us? When are we ever going to regulate groundwater?”  While I don’t like to put a too positive spin on it, it felt good to say – “Water policy is slow to change, but I believe we will have this legislation in place in the next few years.” Right now, BC is reforming the century-old Water Act into the new Water Sustainability Act, and although we can debate the details, groundwater is one reason to rally behind getting it done. Continue reading

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