Scientists try to unearth water secrets

As more and more developments tap into the Okanagan’s limited water resources, researchers are beginning to look underground for more water sources.

However, scientists say they know relatively little about the underwater aquifers, which is why dozens of researchers will be gathering next week to share information at a symposium about the Valley’s subsurface water supply.

“Everywhere in the (Okanagan) basin people are proposing to use it as a water source,” said Anna Sears of the Okanagan Basin Water Board. “We need to make sure they’re not depleting the groundwater, that they’re doing it properly to reduce the threat of contamination.”

Groundwater can be contaminated when polluted surface water trickles in to the aquifer or when phosphorous leaches down through the soil. The province does not regulate the extraction of water from subsurface sources leaving them open to infection, Sears said.

“A lot of people (in the North Okanagan) are completely well dependent,” she said.

“When you’re well dependent you need to make sure that the neighbours are careful to prevent any contamination of the groundwater.”

An increasing number of new subdivisions around the Okanagan are applying to use groundwater resources. However, Sears said no studies have been completed to determine how much water is available, how quickly local aquifers are replenished and whether or not developments would suck them dry.

“We really don’t know how the aquifers are connected to each other or how they recharge,” she said. “So in the long-term we don’t know how much we can rely on them.”

In the North Okanagan there are several communities dependent on groundwater. Wells at Antwerp Springs feed water to most of Coldstream and Lavington, while most areas of Spallumcheen are also dependent on well water.

Based on the Okanagan Basin Water Board’s ongoing groundwater survey, more communities could be supplied with subsurface water. The Jan. 23 symposium will gather information from different researchers to be included in the final report.

The groundwater symposium is sponsored by the Okanagan Basin Water Board and will be hosted by the Penticton Lakeside Resort. Sears said the afternoon sessions will include a panel discussion on groundwater which will be of interest to the public.

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Minor Corrections: Although the province does not require licenses for groundwater extractions, new regulations by the Ministry of Environment require that all new wellheads be properly sealed to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination.  While phosphorus is a big concern for surface water pollution, it becomes trapped in upper soil layers. Nitrates, arsenic, and organic compounds are a greater risk to groundwater. The upcoming groundwater symposium is hosted by the Okanagan Basin Water Board, but sponsored by the Canadian Water Network. – Anna Sears