On July 14, 2023, Watershed Watch was alerted to a serious fish kill in a waterway known as Ford Creek, in Chilliwack. The sight of thousands of young trout and salmon cooked to death in the overheated creek is deeply disturbing.

But this event will not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.

The die-off was caused by water temperatures of 27 degrees Celsius. 

Young salmon struggle above 20 degrees and cannot survive above 25. These severe conditions are becoming increasingly common in salmon and trout spawning waters across the province.  

Habitats Program Director Lina Azeez and Executive Director Aaron Hill

Dead juvenile salmon in Ford Creek

In the mighty Fraser River, salmon face water temperatures that are 3.1 degrees above average and well into levels that will compromise survival and spawning success. Flows are 52 per cent below average. There is no history of levels so low at this time of year to forecast what might be the impact on spawning salmon, but it does not bode well.

As local communities rally to rescue dying fish from hostile stream conditions, our provincial government’s main response has been to tell us to take shorter showers.

Yes, we get it. We all have to conserve.

But we’ve just had three consecutive summers of record drought. And experts have been calling for better planning, watershed management, and drought response measures for more than a decade. Given this reality, the “shorter showers” mantra response seems a bit flat-footed. Our elected leaders need to step up and make watershed security in this province a top priority. But to-date, we’ve seen mainly Instagram posts and half-measures. And we are now paying the price.

The lack of government action to prepare our communities and watersheds for drought is all the more disappointing since the current conditions were entirely predictable following last year’s dry fall and limited spring rain and snow.

So, what should our governments be doing to prevent mass die-offs of fish in places like Ford Creek?

First, they should stop approving the destruction of natural infrastructure in our watersheds. In 2022, pursuing an outdated strategy for flood control, regulators approved removing Ford Creek’s critical riparian zone–the trees, bushes and long grasses that grow naturally alongside the water. They also narrowed the waterway.

Before and after habitat destruction at Ford Creek

When Watershed Watch alerted Cheam First Nation to the Ford Creek fish deaths, the Nation’s fisheries biologist rallied volunteers to transport over 3,000 coho and trout upstream to where forest cover still exists and has kept the water temperature at a comfortable 14 degrees. 

It is well established that natural streambanks provide shade that cools water, and natural curves in creeks provide cool pools that shelter fish during extreme heat. There are also more effective and fish-friendly ways to protect our communities from flooding. On a larger scale, decades of rampant clearcut logging have made our droughts and floods even worse by gutting the natural capacity for our watersheds to buffer snow melt.

Rather than approving the removal of streambanks, wetlands, and trees, the provincial and federal governments must invest in rebuilding these critical natural defences. 

This spring, the province created a new B.C. Watershed Security Fund, which will spend an estimated $5 million annually on watershed renewal. This Fund needs to be at least ten times its current scale to have province-wide impact and should be funded by fees and penalties on those having the greatest impact on our watersheds, like large industrial water users.

Second, when low flows are threatening fish survival, the province should be issuing fish protection orders that require heavier water users, such as industry or agriculture, to use less water. These legal orders exist under B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act for this exact purpose. Yet during last fall’s drought, when thousands of fish were stranded and perished in dried-up streams, not a single order was issued. This year, orders should have been issued weeks ago, but none have been declared so far. 

Third, the province needs to crack down much harder on unlicensed groundwater users. Groundwater aquifers provide clean, cold water to our salmon streams—a lifeline during drought—and it’s time to end the poaching of this precious resource. 

Finally, governments must empower local watershed boards to identify and implement the most effective drought prevention measures for their regions and to find collaborative solutions to water scarcity. The Cowichan watershed, already at drought level 5 (out of 5),  provides a prime example of why governments need to support stronger local direction and decision-making.

The Cowichan Valley Regional District, Cowichan Tribes, Cowichan Watershed Board, community organisations, and Catalyst Crofton all agree on the need to raise the weir at Cowichan Lake. This will provide additional water storage in winter that can be released in the summer to keep the river flowing. For nearly a decade, this community has asked for provincial funds to do this work. Even now, with federal dollars on the table, the provincial government is dragging its feet. Two weeks ago, thousands of young salmon and trout were found dead in the river.

Despite a brief period of rain, drought is expected to continue for weeks, with temperatures rising, and many creeks in the region not adequately protected by streamside vegetation, we are on high alert for more mass fish kills. 

Our provincial and federal governments have the tools at their disposal to do so much more to support communities in preparing for drought and to prevent the most serious impacts of water scarcity, such as these devastating fish die-offs. 

When British Columbians are asked as individuals to do their part, we should ask, when will our governments do theirs?