Federal Gas Tax dollars bolster Okanagan Basin Water Board efforts to address community needs

The Okanagan Basin Water Board secured a $397,000 grant through the federal Gas Tax Fund

Okanagan Basin Water Board executive director Anna Warwick Sears holds up a map of the major creeks flowing into Okanagan Lake

The Okanagan Basin Water Board has been awarded a  $397,000 grant by the federal government to study and record water flows in creeks entering Okanagan Lake and the water needs in the region.

The money, from the federal Gas Tax Fund, will help local, municipal, provincial and federal officials better understand the water needs in the Okanagan, a region known for its water challenges. It is also home to Canada’s largest population growth, according to one recent report.

The announcement of the grant was made Friday in Kelowna.

With the funding, the two-year, second phase of the study will begin looking at the environmental flow needs—or the water needs of fish and aquatic ecosystems—here.  The phase of the project will include approximately 10 stream-by-stream studies, using flow monitoring equipment in streams identified as important for fish habitat throughout the valley.

The work will be a partnership between the OBWB and Okanagan Nation Alliance’s fisheries department and the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

“Water is precious in the Okanagan, where we have one of the lowest rates of water available per person than anywhere in Canada, but have one of the highest rates of use in the country,” said Doug Findlater, chairman of the OBWB.

“Through this grant, the water board, ONA and FLNRO, will be conducting the largest environmental flow needs study in Canada. This is an essential process needed to sustainably manage the waters of this valley.”

Steve Thomson, B.C.’s forests, lands and natural resource operations minister and the MLA for Kelowna-Lake Country, said with last year’s drought in mind, the findings of the new study will help his ministry deal with similar environmental situations here in future.

The federal funding announced on Friday will also help the water board, which serves the three Okanagan regional districts, to plan ahead and prioritize the water needs of fish and aquatic ecosystems, helping ensure the sustainability of the Okanagan, said Kelowna-Lake Country MP Stephen Fuhr, speaking on behalf of the  Amarjeet Sohi, the new federal infrastructure and communities minister.

OBWB’s executive director, Anna Warwick Sears, said the need for this project was identified back in 2010 when the agency completed phase two of its water supply and demand study.

“Since then, concerns have continued to grow about the number of water licences on Okanagan streams, so we started working with the province on how to make the best licencing decisions,” she said. “But then we both realized there’s a critical information gap—we need to know the needs of fish before allocating more licences.  In fact, B.C.’s new Water Sustainability Act will require environmental needs be taken into consideration.”

She also referenced last year’s drought, saying competing needs for water, such as population growth, industry, agriculture and, of course, aquatic species are continuing to multiply  so the project will help make the best water-use decisions possible.

The project will help the province with water licence decisions, but it will also help local governments make better informed development and infrastructure planning decisions too. And, it will also help the ONA and FLNRO with their respective fishery recovery efforts.

“Instead of waiting to see the fish gasping in the streams, this will allow us to know how much water they need,” said Sears. “It’s like an advanced warning system, letting us know when and where restrictions and regulations are needed.”

Pauline Terbasket, the ONA’s executive director said her organization, which has constitutional rights to the waters affected, will benefit from further collaboration.

“While this technical collaborative project offers opportunity for the OBWB and the ONA and its member communities to support these efforts, we will be working together to develop how we collect and manage data in the Okanagan,” she said.

“This comes at a critical time with us all facing the backdrop of climate change and the likelihood of increased drought.”

In B.C., the Union of British Columbia Municipalities administers the federal Gas Tax Fund, in partnership with Ottawa and the province.