While it isn’t always apparent from land, when travelling on Okanagan Lake it’s obvious that very little natural shoreline remains. It simply bristles with docks and walls, which are punctuated by lakeshore and shallow water that’s clearly been denuded of vegetation.
That may not seem like a bad thing if you have a lakeshore home and prefer to have nothing but sterile, man-made natural areas within your viewing area, but if you’re part of the fish or wildlife, plant, bird or insect communities, that’s lethal.
In fact, we now know that 58 per cent of the shoreline is more than 40 per cent disturbed already, thanks to an amazing collaboration of all lakeside communities, regional districts, the province and federal government, coordinated by the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program.
The OCCP has just completed its Foreshore Inventory and Mapping project, which is an invaluable tool for better management.
Now, we just have to make sure we pay attention to the warning, and use the data that’s available to make the right decisions on applications for development.
At risk is not only the lives of natural communities around the lake, but also our own health since we too depend on a healthy lake, both to preserve drinking water quality and quantity, and to protect our economy.
The jewels of lakes scattered along the floor of the Okanagan Valley drew many of us here to enjoy their beauty, and they still draw visitors from all over the world—a fact that is the foundation of our livelihoods.
Second on TripAdvisor’s 2011 Traveller’s Choice for top beaches in Canada were three on Okanagan Lake, and that website gets thousands of hits from around the world.
It’s pretty important advertising for the valley’s tourism industry.
But if we continue on our existing trajectory, in pretty short order, we’ll be wiping out what’s most attractive about the valley: the beauty of our lakes.
According to the Ecoscape report recently presented by the OCCP to valley communities, we’re at risk of annihilating the remaining 43 per cent of natural shoreline in our own lifetimes at the rate we’re going.
Part of the problem is cuts in provincial staff and a lack of enforcement of regulations regarding shorelines, while lands, now in the Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Ministry, has dropped the ball as far as managing shoreline structures such as docks in recent years.
Best management practices may sound fine in theory, but in practice, people do not follow such guidelines if they know nobody’s going to force them to, and BMPs are what the province relies on now instead of enforcement.
So, everyone who wants to alter their little patch of shoreline by constructing docks (there are 2,718), walls (1,799 or 58 km), groynes (939), or whatever, has been able to get away with it in recent years.
And that’s where we are now: with a largely human-impacted shoreline, and only a very few spots where grebes can construct their delicate floating nests in the reeds—unimpeded by development or boat wakes, or the kokanee can lay their eggs in fall before dying.
We must call a halt now to continued erosion of the natural shoreline, and all levels of government must work together, as must the various ministries that have a hand in managing such areas and enforcing the regulations.
Perhaps it will prove to be beneficial that responsibility for lands is now within the same ministry as fish and wildlife, trails and rec sites and forests and range management—if it means people begin to communicate with each other, use the same language and work together.
I do believe if any politician can make that happen, it’s probably our own Steve Thomson, who has been tasked with making this new super-ministry work.
At the local level, it’s vital that these new tools be put to use by planners and developers and that shoreline management become seamless around the valley, with the goal of protecting the remaining high-value natural areas—without exception.
It’s also important that upland linkages be maintained with these sensitive shoreline areas.
And, we must begin to do some restoration of areas we’ve already damaged. Individuals can begin by looking around their own properties and acting as stewards of the natural environment.
On public property where there’s been alteration of the natural shoreline, we should be looking at where we can re-dress the wrong by doing some restoration work. It’s our chance to put our money where our mouth is and set an example for those with privately-owned lakeshore.
We have the tools now, let’s all work together to put them to use and keep this valley a healthy and beautiful place to live, work and play.
Judie Steeves writes about outdoors issues for the Capital News