Not waiting for Noah

Planning is best done in advance.” – Anonymous

Neighborhood on the South Saskatchewan river, June 2013

Flying into Calgary at the end of June, everyone on the plane was glued to the windows, staring at the mess of mud and debris from the Great Flood.

Eventually, rivers always have their own way.

Embarrassingly, I was there to speak at the Canadian Water Summit about collaborative drought planning. By a miracle of organization, the Summit was hastily relocated from the flooded Stampede grounds to a nearby airport hotel. I gave my talk as planned, with some blushing and a few words about unpredictable extreme events.

One of many outrageous pictures from the recent flooding in Colorado

One of many outrageous pictures from the recent flooding in Colorado

A drought could come next year.

The situation was made even more ironic, because I’d just spent several months getting my head around collaborative flood planning, much more topical under the circumstances. The deadly mudslides in BC last year had left me feeling that we are even less prepared for floods than water shortages. 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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The Dirt Makes the Difference.

“Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring…the soil.” Rattan Lal

Soil/Water Conservation: Coming in from the garden this weekend, I went straight to the sink to wash my hands. Carefully turning off the tap while soaping, I readjusted the faucet, and rinsed off the gritty brown lather.

Ironically, it is the dirt, not the act of turning off the tap, that really saves water. Yes, my friends, some of the most effective things for water conservation are not the most intuitive. The soil in our yards and gardens is one of the most powerful forces we have for water conservation and pollution prevention.

Not that I shouldn’t wash my hands regularly and with care.

Continue reading

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Getting beyond inertia and disaster-driven policy response

This is your time and it feels normal to you, but really there is no normal.  There’s only change and resistance to it and then more change.“ –  Meryl Streep

I’ve been writing about change lately – change in climate and population. But it will take even more change to adapt to new conditions.  The challenge is knowing where we are vulnerable and how to respond, so we can protect the things we love.  But how do we get through the inertia to action?

Summer rains on Kootenay Lake - photo taken a few days before and a few kilometres north of the Johnson's Landing slide. Courtesy of Brynne Herbison.

It’s as true for individuals as whole communities.  People tend to trust their odds for most things – but suddenly, without warning, the ground can shift beneath us.

I’ve been deeply unsettled by news of the mudslide in Johnson’s Landing last week – a place I’ve visited often.  A tragedy is the worst kind of catalyst for change. Continue reading

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Mud-bogging and other ways we love the land too hard

 “And now you can’t even take your rubber off the road without getting a fine or be accused of tearing up delicate marshland water sheds or creeks… some people love driving a truck thru the mud getting stuck. And having someone of the same let’s call it sport pulling them out.”Kelowna mudbogging forum

Mud bogging trucks in a drinking water reservoir - photo courtesy of Greater Vernon Water

When I start counting up the complex issues in watersheds, I run out of numbers. 

In a province of 4,618,777 people (as of today), our love of the great outdoors is wearing heavy on the landscape.

My last post was about people, climate change, and water use – with perhaps 30-45% population growth within the next generation. The cummulative effect of having more people depends on where and how we live.

It’s a similar story with people and pollution. Continue reading

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Weddings, weird weather, and where to fit everyone

Do not compute the totality of your poultry population until all the manifestations of incubation have been entirely completed.” – William Jennings Bryan

I’m calling 2012 “the year of weddings and babies” – there are dozens popping up on my facebook.  It’s also the year of the dragon, and my friend from China says many couples purposely plan and wait to have “dragon babies.” There’s a feeling of exuberance in the air.

Flower girl Noli, at a June wedding.

And so, with celebration, the population grows. Much has been written about global carrying capacity, but we are human, here and now.

Where will everyone live? Some are moving here - BC Stats says 45% more for the Central Okanagan by 2036 – maybe 70,000 or 80,000 new people. Other regional districts may grow more slowly, but this seems like a good proxy for growth up and down the urban core of the valley.

It’s a beautiful place to be. We actively try to attract young families and workers; and the retirees come with little coaxing. It’s part of a great global migration.

And what about the water? This year there is no lack of rain, but it always pays to be thoughtful about essential resources. As we have more people, we’ll need more clean drinking water, and more fresh fruit and vegetables.We’ll have more neighbours to feel the effects of floods and shortages, and more of us will be out hiking and biking in the watershed. We’ll have bigger demands for lumber and gravel, more boats on the lake, more everything. Continue reading

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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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