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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share