British Columbia

Online tool could help B.C. ranchers prepare for drought

Thompson Rivers University has teamed up with a company in Kamloops to develop an online tool to help ranchers predict effects of climate change.

Ranchers in the Kamloops area now have tool to help them predict impacts of climate change on ponds

Aaron Coelho has found ponds in the Kamloops area have seen a 50 percent reduction in size and number. (Tom Pypker)

Thompson Rivers University has teamed up with a company in Kamloops to develop an online tool to help ranchers manage climate change.

For the past few years, Aaron Coelho has been looking into the decline of ponds in the area's ranchlands. He started out with a study to confirm anecdotal evidence from ranchers that ponds were becoming less common and shrinking in size as part of his masters in environmental science.

Aaron Coelho with Urban Systems is working with a team of researchers to develop an online tool to model drying ponds in B.C. (Tara Copeland/CBC)

"What I did see was a lot of dry ponds," said Coelho who is now a water resources consultant with Urban Systems.

Ponds shrinking in B.C.

His findings backed up what he saw on the ground. In a region-wide study of B.C., Coelho found a decline of more than 50 percent of surface water since the early 1990s. This drop in access to water causes major challenges to ranchers because cattle won't choose to graze in areas that don't have accessible water. 

"It shows a shift in this ecosystem and it's driven by climate and there's nothing saying this trend isn't going to continue," he said.

"It could even get worse."

When he took this information to ranchers in the area, Coelho found people wanted to know how to use this information to manage their water sources. That lead to his current project.

He's currently working with Tom Pypker, an assistant professor in the department of natural resource sciences at Thompson Rivers University. They are developing the Climate Change Impact Risk Assessment Tool.

Aaron Coelho is developing a climate modelling tool to identify where the risk areas are for drought. (Aaron Coelho)

The first part of the tool allows ranchers to zoom into an area using a program like Google Earth.

Ranchers can find their farm and then click on it to see what the risk factor is for future drought for each part of the property.

They also have to fill out a short questionnaire to figure out where the water in the pond comes from and how that might affect how resilient it is to climate change.

The climate modelling tool shows what the risk of climate change is over time. (Aaron Coelho)

"They can then project, 'OK, 30 years from now the climate doesn't look favourable. This pond may be at risk. I may need to think about other ways to bring water to my range,'" said Pypker.

Lakes and ponds drying up

This is the kind of tool that Bob Haywood-Farmer could have used over a decade ago. He has been ranching in the Savona area just west of Kamloops his whole life.

In his lifetime, he's seen dramatic changes to how much water cattle on his farm can access.

"We've got lakes that used to have water in them that we haven't seen water in now for 15 years," said Haywood-Farmer.

Cattle won't graze in areas that don't have good access to water. (Aaron Coelho)

Despite that he's not sure how he would end up using the predictive tool.

"It might be useful on ones where the ponds still have water," he said. "So many of our ponds have already dried up that we pretty much know where we're at with those."

Online tool to help with planning

Coelho is hoping this new online tool will help ranchers develop a plan for water management.

"The advantage that the tool gives is it gives them a sense of what might happen in the future which of course none of us can really predict unless we have some good model and good data to base the model on," said Coelho.

Coelho and his team are hoping they will be able to release the tool more broadly in 2017 so ranchers across the province can use it.

To hear the audio, click the link on the left-hand side: Online tool to help B.C. ranchers prepare for drought