British Columbia

Drought conditions prompt B.C. to push for water conservation in Lower Fraser, Vancouver Island

The province of British Columbia is asking all water users to reduce consumption voluntarily but said it will exercise its powers if necessary to protect ecosystems.

Until the rains come, small streams are at risk of drying up as salmon return to spawn

Neighbouring regions of Nicola, Similkameen and Coldwater River are already experiencing level four, or "extremely dry" drought conditions. (B.C. Government)

The province is asking all water users in the Lower Fraser region — from Hope to Vancouver — along with those on Vancouver Island to reduce water consumption by 30 per cent beginning immediately, and has announced level three drought conditions.

The Similkameen, Nicola, and Salmon River watersheds are currently under level four drought conditions.

Industry, agriculture and residential users across the South Coast as well as those in Whistler and Squamish are being asked to cut back by 30 per cent in an attempt to maintain adequate levels in streams and tributaries and protect fish.

"We can't make it rain, but what we can do to protect those fish and our ecosystems is try to be very responsible with our usage," said Valerie Cameron, a water stewardship manager with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

Rural residents who draw from wells and aquifers, as well as the industry and agricultural users outside of city limits, fall under provincial jurisdiction, though for now the request to reduce usage is voluntary.

Municipalities in B.C. enforce their own water restriction bylaws, but often work in concert with the province, as they hold provincial water licences that allow them to draw a specific volume of water for municipal use, according to Cameron.

The province blames the drought conditions on the hot, dry weather that has defined the summer for much of the southern part of the province, and said the lack of precipitation has had a significant impact on small streams.

Those streams are essential to salmon and other fish, but they also feed major rivers.

On Aug. 30, the Fraser River Panel measured the river at approximately 20 per cent lower than average for this time of year. It also pointed out that low water levels make the river more susceptible to temperature increases.

The Fraser River remains closed to salmon fishing as sockeye returns have been extremely low, according to counts by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Level four: irreversible ecological impacts

The provincial ministry said it is closely monitoring the conditions of streams and may upgrade the drought level "if the weather continues to have a negative effect on stream flows and water supplies."

In 2015, B.C. experienced extreme drought, and the Lower Fraser region was classified at level three or four drought conditions from June to September. By the end of the summer, some municipalities faced dangerously low reservoir levels.

Cameron said looking back on that difficult season should serve as incentive enough for all water users to cut back in hopes of preventing a level four alert which is considered "extremely dry."

"[At level four] we definitely are seeing serious possibly irreversible ecological impacts," said Cameron.

If conditions worsen, water licensees may see their licences revoked to protect ecosystems, a power granted to the ministry under the 2016 Water Sustainability Act.

Officials in Metro Vancouver say water levels in reservoirs, like this one in the Seymour watershed, are holding steady but conservation measures are still needed. (Getty Images/Moment RF)

Cameron said she isn't aware of major regulatory measures being used to manage water licensees in the Lower Mainland, but said they've been used in the past in the Interior.

If that does happen, senior licensees will be given priority to draw the entire allocation. If there's any water left over, newer licensees may have an opportunity to draw from that.

"We certainly don't want to use those kinds of regulatory tools if we don't have to," said Cameron.

"You can go a long way with voluntary action rather than having to pull out the big heavy hammer of government."