It is not an exaggeration to say that “water is life”. We rely on clean, fresh water to support healthy, productive ecosystems and it is also essential for our communities and economies. BC’s unique watersheds (systems of rivers, lakes, snowmelt and groundwater) provide freshwater to sustain human and animal life but are also used to support recreation, industry and agriculture. Growing human settlements, expanding industrial use and climate change are putting pressure on this vital resource, impacting both water quality and supply.
Land use changes and urban development have significant impacts on the quality and supply of freshwater. Natural vegetative surfaces are very effective at absorbing, cooling, filtering and gradually releasing rainfall, providing base flow for streams and rivers that, in turn, provide habitat for fish and other aquatic life. Many streams in urban areas have been completely lost or severely degraded by poor urban development practices. Fish and other organisms are highly sensitive to water temperature fluctuations, chemical pollution and sedimentation that can result from urban development unless proper measures to manage stormwater runoff are designed and implemented. BC has been one of the leaders in this field although there is much more to do.
BC has a long history of using water to generate electricity. Our legacy of dams from the early and mid-twentieth century continue to generate most of the power used in the Province and give us a relatively clean, affordable supply that is the envy of the world. However, the proposed new Site C dam on the Peace River has highlighted that this power comes at a heavy price, both financially (the project is estimated at $9billion) but also from the loss of ecologically productive land and farms, and the impact on the river ecosystem itself. Many of North America’s most prolific salmon runs were decimated by dams.
In many parts of BC, oil and gas are being produced from rock formations using an industrial process called hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’). This technique uses large quantities of water combined with other materials and chemicals that are injected at high pressure into rock formations to fracture the rocks and release trapped natural gas. This can impact the water system in two ways: 1) it may deplete local supplies of water and 2) it may have a negative impact on the quality of the groundwater in the area.
Water is also used extensively for farm irrigation. Crops and animals need water at the very times when water supplies are at their lowest so, in some cases, there is fierce competition for water resources among ecologists, recreational users (fishers, boaters) and farmers. Poorly managed farms may also discharge polluted runoff from animals and fertilizers and pesticides into water bodies.
Water bottling is another industry that is putting pressure on water supplies, mainly groundwater. Water is extracted from the ground or from springs for bottling at very low cost and may not be replenished at the same rate.
Many of BC’s watersheds rely on melting snowpack (snow accumulated during the winter months) to sustain minimum streamflows throughout the drier months. However, with climate change, the depth of snowpack is declining and, along with shrinking glaciers, this is reducing summer river flows, increasing water temperatures and the availability of drinking water supplies in the drier months.
The complexity of managing fresh water is made challenging by outdated plans and laws, inadequate infrastructure and incomplete data about the health of our water systems. The Province passed a new Freshwater Sustainability Act in 2016, and along with associated regulations and policies, this has modernized the system of water management in BC. However, there is much work to be done to restore some of our damaged watersheds, bring back fish populations and prepare for the impacts of climate change.
What are your thoughts on the underlying causes of our water stewardship challenges? You can respond in the comment section below.