Meet The Watershed Doctor

The Sustainable Watershed Balancing Act

  • Many heartfelt thanks to Guest Blogger Kim Green, PGeo, PhD

The term ‘sustainable watershed management’ means a lot of different things to different people, with different points of view. West of the Rockies, we are in the initial stages of grappling with this term on a Province-wide scale as we face our new Water Sustainability Act and the legislated requirements for Sustainable Watershed Management Plans.

"Water, and how we treat our water, is one of those fundamental issues that touches on so much of who we are, what we do, and how we build our economy.  A weak Water Sustainability Act could fail to deal with current unsustainable and inefficient water use, and could lock in these problems for years to come.  A strong Act could address past over-use, and wasteful use, of water and protect drinking water and fish from over-use, poor oil and gas, logging or mining practices, and other threats." - West Coast Environmental Law wcel.org, Accessed July 06, 2016 http://wcel.org/resources/environmental-law-alert/strengths-and-weaknesses-new-water-sustainability-act

As a watershed geoscientist who has studied headwater watersheds of the Columbia and Rocky Mountains for the past 20 years, I have gained some insight into how watersheds work. For me the term ‘sustainable watershed management’ implies the preservation of the key underling physical processes in a watershed that govern water and sediment transport.

It is these physical processes that underpin ecosystem integrity in a watershed. These are the processes that shape the streams, feed the riparian areas, and provide aquatic habitat for both terrestrial and aquatic species.

  Duhamel Creek – one of my favorite local watersheds

Duhamel Creek – one of my favorite local watersheds

One thing that has become very clear to me in my study of watersheds is that, like people, watersheds are unique and what is sustainable in one watershed is not necessarily sustainable in another. This is because the factors controlling water and sediment transport through a watershed differ from watershed to watershed.

These factors include the underlying geology, the character of glacial sediments, the aspect (the direction the slopes face), elevation, and gradient of the watershed slopes. In addition, the land cover including the forests and shrubs and how it has changed over time also plays a role in the underlying physical processes.

Sustainable watershed management must start with identifying these key underlying physical watershed processes and managing resource values to preserve them. Resource industries and recreationalists that do not appreciate how these physical watershed processes contribute to ecosystem health and, as well, connect to each other cannot operate in a sustainable way.

B.C.'s new Water Sustainability Act has the following strengths:
- Groundwater is now regulated
- Water flows for fish are better protected
- Critical environmental flow in times of scarcity may now be protected
- The development of Water Sustainability Plans can now be delegated outside government
- Water licenses now have responsibiity to steward water resources

It will be something for Alberta to watch and learn from because the failings from this Act will soon be apparent. The reason for the act was to protect water in the Okanagan because of climate change and increasing population. The Act is weak because there is no research happening in B.C. to help define the basic terms. It will be a challenge to bring in the Act without the science to help guide it. The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources must be rebuilt and priorities must be set for this. The implications of not doing so are critical.

In the Okanagan, for example, people are suffering in later summer months because surface water sources are so comprimised - and people are afraid that groundwater will suffer the same fate. Concretely, there are severe water restrictions in place: you can't water your garden; you must have all low-flow appliances in your home; everyone is on water meters and must pay dearly for the water they use (about several thousand a year). Most of the agriculture has water licenses on surface water flows - it's a semi-desert area with close to half a million people in the Okanagan valley. The wells that exist are now all licensed and must not over-drain and very few new wells will be allowed. The Act is intended to limit new development in the Okanagan valley.

All you need to do is look at the state of North Dakota to see what happens when you deplete your groundwater. You get sinkholes and as you scrape the bottom of the barrel, you get poor water quality with heavy sedimentation. You will actually run out and you'll have to wait for it to replenish - water supply is erratic. Glacier-sourced, this water will not be replenished in the next decade. By 2050, glaciers in Southern Alberta are expected to disappear completely. 

In fact, in Southern Alberta, we are seeing less and less snowpack. Once you get above 2,000 meters, though - snowpack will likely prevail. Whether it is enough for a growing population is another matter. We'll get peak events occuring in late April or early May rather than June and low flows in later summer will increase. Alberta will definitely benefit from seeing how this Water Sustainability Act will work in B.C. - beginning with the exact definition of an "environmental flow".

Why is it that the provinces are so different
in the management of our water resources?

Although my appreciation for watersheds as unique, complex, and fascinating elements of nature is based on my own personal investigation of them, I know I am not the first to marvel at the beauty and amazing balancing act of watersheds. Luna Leopold (1915 - 2006), a visionary American geologist who spent many years dedicated to the study of watershed processes, wrote in an essay to land conservationists in the 1960’s: “Learn to read the land (river), and when you do, I have no fear of what you will do with it; indeed, I am excited about what you will do for it.” ( Luna Leopold, Sand Country Almanac, 1966).

We are not talking about California or Syriaor the Sahra Desert. We are talking about our immediate neighbours: B.C. and North Dakota. Southern Alberta has much to learn - and much to be thankful for.

  Kim Green PhD, P.Geo., watershed doctor, getting ready for my day at work

Kim Green PhD, P.Geo., watershed doctor, getting ready for my day at work

Kim Green P.Geo., PhD

Apex Geoscience Consultants Ltd. | 1220 Government Street, Nelson BC | P:250-352-6725, C:250-551-4024 | www.apexgeoconsultants.com