Our water future is just beginning

Patience, time and money accommodate all things.” – Spanish Proverb

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BC Parliament on a summer day. Photo by Brynne Herbison

BC is in the middle of another resource development boom. Water isn’t one of them, but as always, is central to everything.

More than 100 years ago, the Water Act was created to bring order to the mining industry. Prospectors needed flumes to wash the gravels and extract the ores, and they needed to know that the guy upstream wouldn’t divert the flow.

Times have changed, and the resources are different. The new gold is natural gas, along with hydro-power, expansion of irrigated agriculture and the thirst of growing cities. The Water Act is being updated as the Water Sustainability Act, to protect the needs of the new economy while also protecting natural water systems.

We’ve had waves of opportunities for public comment, starting in 2008 when the Premier’s office released Living Water Smart, their plan for BC’s water future. Now, years later, we are seeing how our recommendations have been weighed and measured, in the final legislative proposal released on October 18th.

This is really an historic time and when the Act passes the legislature this coming spring, we’ll be throwing a big party. On the other hand, turning the law into regulations and making the changes they’re calling for will take active, tenacious involvement of everyone who cares about water. It will be a tall task with ticklish trade-offs.

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Zebra mussels: scarier than Jurassic Park.

The Don't Move a Mussel muscle shirts have been a big hit.

“They’ll clump on rock, they’ll clump in pipe, and they’ll clump mussel-next-to-mussel-atop-mussel in astonishing congregations of as many as 70,000 individuals a square foot” – Sue McGrath

It’s hard to get people excited about invisible threats that haven’t arrived yet, but sometimes that’s what you have to do.

Let’s make a list of undesirable things: salmon extinctions, toxic algae blooms, beach closures, clogged water intakes and storm drains, botulism toxin… The unpleasantries associated with the small but numerous zebra and quagga mussels are many and varied. Continue reading

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Water Day, every day

Why isn’t every day Water Day?” – Peter Gleick, on Twitter

Dear Readers,

Taken by Judie Steeves for her article "Myth of Abundance" in the Kelowna Capital News

Canada Water Week, and World Water Day (March 22) have come and gone, and I hope you all took the opportunity to lift a long, cool glass and marvel at the wonder and privilege to have such a beautiful, precious thing flow freely from our taps.  Nonetheless, this seems a good opportunity to celebrate progress in the year past, to look at where we’ve fallen behind, and to make plans for the future.

First, I want to apologize for the long blog-drought on Building Bridges. Over the past few months I’ve been taking time for family: the short illness and peaceful passing of my father. He had a great love for this blog, and I often thought of him while writing – to educate and entertain an intelligent, caring member of the public. In that spirit, I continue. Continue reading

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Lessons from Sandy: disaster isn’t our only option

Do we renovate? Of course we renovate,” Ms. Fisher said. “But what if it happens again, next year and the year after?” – NY Times, 11/23/2012.

Unpleasant Weather: Mother Nature gave us a good smacking in 2012, as if to say “Smarten up! Get your act together!” Here in B.C., outrageous spring rainfall brought terrible mud-slides. All summer in the U.S. and Central Canada, there were devastating droughts. Windstorms knocked out power for millions of people during record heat waves.

Not everyone in Manhattan was taking Hurricane Sandy seriously.

When Hurricane Sandy came around, the Onion, a satirical newspaper, published an article headlined, “Nation suddenly realizes this is just going to be a thing that happens from now on.” FEMA appealed for extra flood-relief funds from Congress, President Obama called for insurance companies to do their part, and clean-up efforts began.

If we really accept that “this is just going to be a thing that happens,” now is a good time to revisit our development planning. We really don’t have to live like this. Change is daunting, but doable.

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The Value of Water

I conceive that the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things.” – Benjamin Franklin

Expensive On Other Planets:  In Salt Lake City, I once met an exobiologist who studied the bacteria that live under the Antarctic ice-sheet. Camping in a tent, she spent her days diving into holes in frozen lakes to collect samples. She told me it was a “Mars model,” considered one of the few places on earth that can approximate extraterrestrial conditions.

NASA’s latest mission just spent $2.5 billion dollars to actually look for water on Mars. Its simple presence is a signal that life can exist, whatever planet you are on. Whether or not one feels this is money well spent, it shows the lengths we’ll go and the money we’ll spend on water. 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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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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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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