Facing future water supply challenges

Annual meeting of Central Okanagan Basin Water Board on Friday marked 45 years of water protection in the valley.

  • Sep. 5, 2015 3:00 p.m.

The Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB) holds its annual meeting on Friday and while the agency is celebrating 45 years of water protection in the valley, it is already looking at the challenges ahead and ways to meet them.

The annual general meeting included a keynote address from Julia Lew, with the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA),  regarding her agency’s efforts to fight back invasive quagga mussels; a drought update from the province; and the release of this year’s OBWB annual report titled “It Starts With Water.”

“It really does all start with water,” noteed Anna Warwick Sears, executive director for the OBWB.

“It’s central to everything – our health, our tourism, our food security, and our economy. We’ve seen incredible improvements to water quality over the last 45 years, and even conservation improvements, but the threats to our water supply are still there and multiplying.

“This year alone, we’ve had so much coming at us, invasive milfoil growth like we’ve never seen, a Level 4 drought which is forecast to be an issue next summer as well, and of course the threat of invasive mussels continues to be a concern. But the strength of the Water Board, and its success in addressing water issues, is in its consistent approach to building partnerships.”

Those partnerships were visible at Friday’s gathering. Attendees include local and senior government staff and electeds (mayors, MLAs and MPs), agencies represented on the OBWB’s Water Stewardship Council (the technical advisory body to the board) including First Nations, farmers, realtors, local government planners, water stewardship groups, and others.  But the meeting is also intended to build even more partnerships and learn from others as a way to help address local water issues.

As such, Lew was invited to share the experience of the SNWA in addressing invasive mussels. The OBWB began raising the alarm about zebra and quagga mussels in 2012 after a research paper indicated an infestation would cost the Okanagan at least $43 million a year.

The water board began pushing the province and federal government for inspections along the B.C.-Alberta and Canada-U.S. border, but also launched its own Don’t Move A Mussel campaign (www.DontMoveAMussel.ca) to raise awareness and help prevent the spread.

According to Lew, a pilot plant specialist in the agency’s Applied Water Quality Research Department, SNWA provides drinking water to almost 2 million residents and another 40 milliion annual visitors.

In 2007, the presence of quagga mussels were confirmed in their water source, Lake Mead, and have been causing problems ever since. The main issues from a water delivery perspective, she says, have been the clogging of water intakes and protection of water treatment infrastructure.

In many cases, utilities will use chlorine as an effective decontamination method, but this isn’t possible at SNWA where the chemical, when combined with existing organics, would create a carcinogenic byproduct. In response, the authority conducted its own research to find a safe and effective treatment.

“The biology is very unpredictable with these mussels,” explained Lew. “Whereas we haven’t seen some of the effects other jurisdictions have with the mussels, we’ve had others not seen elsewhere,” she said.

For example, in many areas where the mussels exist there is one reproductive cycle per year and one female can produce a million eggs. But the warm water temperatures in Lake Mead is resulting in six to eight reproductive cycles per year.

Another issue is the cost to chemically pre-treat a new in-take, made necessary because of declining water levels in the lake. The cost will be about $8 million,  said Lew.

In looking at the Okanagan’s situation, where as far as we know the mussels are not present, Lew provided a caution.

“If we could go back in time, prevention would have been the way to go. I know some think prevention is costly, but the moment you don’t have it, and the mussels get in, it’s devastating. The costs once they arrive are far worse,” she said.

In considering the work of the water board over the last 45 years, Sears noted it has much to celebrate. Its Sewage Facilities Assistance Grants to local governments in the valley, which began four decades ago, have greatly improved water quality.

The Water Conservation and Quality Improvement Grants Program, almost 10 years old, has provided $3.2 million in funding to projects that improve our waters.

In the past year alone the OBWB has worked with partners on wetland rehabilitation, helping prepare the Okanagan for the impacts of climate change, it has seen the expansion of its water conservation effort (www.MakeWaterWork.ca) with a new low-water plant collection, and much more.

But we also face challenges, added Sears. Partnerships, learning from agencies like SNWA, and working with others will continue to be important.

“The only way we can adapt to the changes in weather, population, invasive species, is to work in partnership, with the water board providing a consistent way to bring people together in the best interests of the valley. There is no more efficient or effective way to do it,” Sears concluded.

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