British Columbia·Climate Changers

Scientists work to protect B.C. island's crucial freshwater source from fire, drought

Researchers on Salt Spring Island are working on a plan to protect an important freshwater reserve as risks mount amid a growing climate emergency.

Maxwell Lake provides about half of Salt Spring Island with water

Ecologists Ruth Waldick and Pierre Mineau are looking at how human intervention can protect an important freshwater source from the consequences of climate change. (Rohit Joseph/CBC)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of Our Changing Planeta CBC News initiative to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.


Researchers on B.C.'s Salt Spring Island are working on a plan to protect an important freshwater reserve as risks mount amid a growing climate emergency.

Maxwell Lake provides water for about half of Salt Spring Island, just off the east coast of Vancouver Island.

Ecologists say agriculture and forestry in the area over the past century have left the forest overgrown, blocking out light and limiting the growth of understory, the low layer of vegetation in the forest that helps absorb water. 

Without that water absorption, the forest becomes dry and at greater risk for fires.

Ash from a fire getting into the lake and erosion surrounding the lake would be of great concern, and would render that water source useless, according to Gary Gagne, North Salt Spring Island Waterworks District trustee.

Gary Gagne, who has lived on Salt Spring Island on and off for 45 years, says this research project is one of the 'most incredible' things that's been done on the island. (Rohit Joseph/CBC)

"We have varying ages of trees, some really, really tight," Gagne said.

"There's all kinds of problems that I'm now just being made aware of that I didn't even realize how poorly managed this watershed is."

Freshwater shortages have plagued the Gulf Islands for years; last summer, they experienced what some described as the worst drought in recent memory

Researchers with Transition Salt Spring, a non-profit dedicated to addressing climate change in the community, are working to protect the area from future climate disasters — namely wildfires that could compromise freshwater on the island. 

Ecologist Ruth Waldick explains that understory in the forest helps absorb water, but if the understory is compromised, it can effect the entire area. (Rohit Joseph/CBC)

Ruth Waldick, an ecologist and former Environment Canada researcher, is working on a plan to protect the area. 

The most notable part of that plan is human intervention, something fellow ecologist Pierre Mineau is passionate about. 

"By removing some trees, doing some thinning, selective openings and so on to allow understory to come in … more water [will be] coming into the aquifer," he said.

The forest around Maxwell Lake, an important freshwater source on Salt Spring Island, is overgrown and creating problems for the watershed. (Rohit Joseph/CBC)

Although the forest could naturally correct itself over the next century, Mineau said they'd like to speed things up to protect the forest right away rather than wait and risk a fire destroying the area.

"We don't have the time to wait for nature to take care of itself," Waldick said. 

They're still gathering data on different parts of the forest to determine which parts actually require human intervention. Once that's complete, they'll share the findings with the North Salt Spring Waterworks District.

Waldick said they'll also have to get permission from Environment & Climate Change Canada to begin any interventions. The hope, she said, is to begin work on the area in late September 2022.

The Climate Changers is our new series sharing the stories of people who are taking positive steps -- big and small -- to tackle climate change everyday, all across communities in BC. For our first story, Rohit Joseph paid a visit to Salt Spring Island to find out how Ruth Waldick and her team at Transition Salt Spring are trying to protect an important source of freshwater from fires and droughts.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. In B.C. we've witnessed its impacts with deadly heat waves, destructive floods and rampant wildfires. But there are people who are committed to taking meaningful strides, both big and small, towards building a better future for our planet. Those people are featured in CBC's series The Climate Changers, produced by CBC science reporter and meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe and associate producer Rohit Joseph, which airs Wednesdays on All Points West, On The Coast and Radio West on CBC Radio One and on CBC Vancouver News with features on cbc.ca/bc

With files from Rohit Joseph

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