Mark Angelo and Kelly Pearce: B.C. rivers face an uncertain future

By Mark Angelo and Kelly Pearce

The Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia recently released its annual Endangered Rivers List for 2009, and the results paint a disturbing picture of the threats that confront many of B.C.’s rivers. The list, compiled annually, is based on nominations from many of ORC’s 100,000 members. Numerous submissions are also received from resource managers and the general public. Given the extensive input from those who use and enjoy our rivers as well as those who manage them, the list is deemed by many to be an accurate snapshot of the state of our waterways. It’s also meant to create a greater public awareness of the diversity of threats facing our rivers while also helping to profile specific river issues.

Leading the list in 2009 is the Flathead River. Flowing through the Rocky Mountains of southeastern B.C., the Flathead is one of North America’s most beautiful rivers. Yet, it faces many threats—and foremost among these is the proposed Cline open-pit coal mine near the river’s headwaters.

The Flathead River runs through the largest, unsettled, low-elevation valley in southern Canada. No other region along the Canada-U.S. border sustains such a diversity of ecosystems and wildlife. The river has some of the finest water quality found anywhere and supports a vibrant resident fishery. The valley also supports the highest density of inland grizzlies in North America. But all of these values could be jeopardized if the mine is developed.

To date, public sentiment strongly supports the protection of this incredible area. A recent poll of East Kootenay residents (November 2008) showed 73 percent in favour of protecting the Flathead. In addition, given that there are several other operating coal mines in adjacent watersheds, many believe it makes much more sense to expand those rather than industrialize a new pristine valley such as the Flathead.

In the number two position is the Kettle River. Located in B.C.’s southern interior, this beautiful stream suffers from excessive water extraction and seasonal low flows. Stream conditions may worsen further as a result of new applications to extract additional water supplies near the river’s headwaters. Other B.C. rivers on the list, such as the Somass and Coldwater, face similar problems of water scarcity, and unless efforts are made to better recognize ecological limits, the fate of the Kettle River may well foreshadow what other B.C. streams will be confronted with in the face of ongoing climate change.

The Glacier-Howser creek system, located in the Kootenays, captured third place and is threatened by a controversial independent power project. There has been much discussion and debate in recent years about run-of-the-river power. And while most respondents expressed support for truly green projects, there is concern about the increasing size and scale of specific diversions such as Glacier-Howser. Furthermore, while most British Columbians appreciate the role of hydro-electric power in addressing climate change, many are concerned about the lack of a strategy and plan to govern such projects.

In fourth place is the Fraser River, maintaining its dubious reputation of being in the top five 16 times in past 17 years. The Fraser’s problems are numerous, including long-standing issues such as sewage and pollution. There are also a host of emerging issues, including periodic low flows, unchecked agricultural impacts, and reduced protection for urban stream tributaries. Still another issue centers on the possible development of a water highway that would include a series of ports (along with possible dredging) to accommodate container barges upriver to Hope.

The Fraser is literally “the heart and soul of our province” and remains the world’s greatest salmon river. The “Heart of the Fraser”, located between Mission and Hope, is also one of the most productive stretches of river anywhere on Earth but, without a collaborative plan, this part of the river continues to face increasing pressures associated with urbanization, industrial development, and agricultural expansion.

The Endangered Rivers List also highlighted many other issues facing our waterways. Examples include Brohm Creek, one of B.C.’s most productive steelhead streams, where a major all-season development may extract more water than the stream (and its fishery) can support. And the Coquitlam River continues to be impacted by run-off from a number of nearby gravel mines.

As one scans the 2009 list, the problems outlined are extensive and diverse, ranging from controversial dam proposals and low summer flows to the need for improved riverside habitat protection and better collaborative planning. These issues also highlight the fact that we cannot separate the health of our fish stocks from the health of our rivers; they are completely inter-dependent.

Mark Angelo is the chair of the Rivers Institute at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Kelly Pearce is with the Hope Mountain Centre for Outdoor Learning.