If you’re feeling a bit uneasy about the weather these days, you’re not alone. We had a record-breaking drought and wildfire season, and temperature records continued to get smashed with T-shirt weather through the Thanksgiving long weekend. If you were one of the hundreds of British Columbians who lost their homes to wildfires this summer, “uneasy” is a profound understatement. 

The provincial state of emergency has now been cancelled and fish protection orders have been rescinded, but most of B.C. is still experiencing ongoing, severe drought, and wildfires continue to burn as we write this.

Over 300 wildfires are still burning in B.C.

There are lessons to be learned from this summer but we also must look forward and plan for the future if we want to ensure B.C.’s freshwater can continue to sustain us and our wild salmon.

Farmers of forage crops, such as hay, were required to stop irrigating in several watersheds this summer.

Takeaways from Summer 2023

It was quite clear—to our government and anyone else who was paying attention—that drought and wildfire would be a problem this year. Though the province did take actions, such as restricting groundwater use in specific areas and launching an emergency task force, it was ‘too little, too late’. If anything, their actions did little but shine a light on many ongoing failings by the province when it comes to managing B.C.’s watersheds.

For example, the implementation of fish protection orders, restricting licenced groundwater use in watersheds such as the Koksilah, highlighted several problems. The province’s ability to manage commercial groundwater use—a very important thing to do during a drought—was undermined by their failure to bring thousands of unlicenced commercial water users into compliance over the past several years.

There was also the bizarre dysfunction in our water management system that had our B.C. Ministry of Forests issuing belated orders restricting water use while the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship remained silent and the Minister of Emergency Preparedness told everyone to take shorter showers. You would have been forgiven for expecting the provincial ministry with “water” and “stewardship” in its name to take an active role in actually stewarding our water sources during the most severe and widespread drought in our province’s recorded history. And let’s not forget that only one community in the entire province is even close to having an official water sustainability plan, years after the 2016 B.C. Water Sustainability Act created the ability for such plans to exist.

Clearcut logging is creating increased flood risk, according to new research.

The effects of ongoing mismanagement

While our climate is changing and the transition from the recent cool La Niña to a warmer El Niño affects the severity of droughts and floods, widespread watershed mismanagement is also playing a massive role in the scale of recent disasters. The province has permitted and subsidized decades of poorly regulated resource extraction, has failed to properly pursue charges or fines when damage has occurred, and it’s coming back to bite British Columbians.

The most glaring example is B.C.’s forestry industry, with ongoing research building the case around the high-cost that clearcutting in watersheds can have on downstream communities. Recent research out of UBC by Dr. Younes Alila and his team is putting some numbers to the impact. In a new paper, the team modelled the impacts of clearcutting on flood risk in the Deadman River and Joe Ross Creek watersheds, located north of Kamloops. They found that clearcuts to just 21 per cent of those watersheds increase flood size by 38 per cent and 84 per cent, respectively. They also found that clear-cuts increase the likelihood of severe flood events, with floods that would have historically occurred every 20 years occurring every five. The data and implications are concerning, which is why Watershed Watch is co-sponsoring additional research by Dr. Alila, this time focused on the Kettle River Valley.

Logging roads and clearcuts mark up the landscape north of the Kettle River Valley. Credit: Google Maps, Airbus, Maxar Technologies, CNES.

Poor forestry practices don’t just increase flood risk but are also linked to increased wildfire severity, due to replanting requirements, degradation of drinking water quality in rural communities and increased landslide risk. 

The threats to watersheds as a result of poor management aren’t limited to forestry. It extends to other activities, such as inadequate wastewater treatment by new or abandoned mines polluting streams, pipeline projects that have been causing ongoing harm to salmon habitat and much, much, more. A knowledge gap around the water needs as well as actual water use in communities pits water users, such as farmers and residential users, against environmental needs. 

CodeBlue is a plan to secure and sustain BC’s fresh water sources. Forever.

What’s the solution?
To improve watershed security in the province, we launched the CodeBlue BC campaign with allies in 2020, and later joined the B.C. Watershed Security Coalition. Our work compelled the provincial government to begin developing a B.C. Watershed Security Strategy, invest $57 million into watershed restoration and monitoring work, develop a $100 million dollar Watershed Security Fund and create a new role of parliamentary secretary for watershed restoration. This all counts as progress but much more is needed.

This is why CodeBlue BC continues to push for three key asks:

  1. Get tough on water wasters and polluters. 
  2. Give local people the power to restore and manage their local water sources.
  3. Establish a permanent source of watershed security funding for B.C.

We also need the province to provide clarity around the roles and responsibilities of ministries and be proactive to reduce the impacts of future events.

We have been hammered by severe drought and flood events for the last several years and in this changing climate we can expect worse to come. Regions scorched by wildfires or razed by clear-cuts are at increased risk of flooding and landslides as the fall and winter rains come. We also know that many B.C. communities have woefully inadequate flood protection, or obsolete flood structures that are blocking vast swaths of salmon habitat. As the drought and wildfire season draws to an end, the provincial government should be taking this time to be proactive and develop plans to reduce potential flood risk now, and restore salmon habitat in the bargain, instead of trying to deal with the fallout after another severe weather event.

Click here to add your voice to the CodeBlue BC plan.