Steeves/Trail Mix: Fish habitat or drinking water?

There's a conflict brewing on the Okanagan's upland fishing lakes because many are also drinking water reservoirs.

Winter draw-down at Dobbin Lake

Clouds of colourful leaves swirl up when I walk and a rain of orange, yellow and red drifts around my head and shoulders in the slightest breeze.

It’s one of the most delightful aspects of this change in seasons, although the starkly bare tree trunks look cold and uncomfortable not clothed in the green leaves of summer.

There are other ways we mark the season’s change, and not all are delightful.

For example, one of the issues that is a feature of the Okanagan’s multi-use watersheds is the late-season draw-down of upland reservoirs so that water utilities can do a dam safety inspection, or because it’s been a water-short season and that water has been needed down in the valley.

You may not even realize that your favourite fishing lake is a water reservoir that a domestic utility or irrigation district has created where water ran and the landscape was favourable to erecting a dam.

Often, these earth-filled dams were built early in the last century. With the failure a few years ago of the dam on Testalinden Creek further south in the valley, those responsible for dams have been under increased pressure to ensure their dams are safe and are not likely to fail and wash out homes, highways and farms.

However, such draw-downs do no favours for the fish and other aquatic life that depends on a certain water level at a small lake.

Ironically, many of these reservoir lakes are also stocked with rainbows or brook trout at least once a year by the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C., to encourage anglers from around the world to enjoy our back country and our sport fishing.

That includes reservoirs such as Postill Lake in the Glenmore Ellison Improvement District which received 1,000 yearling rainbows May 22 this year; Dobbin Lake in the former Westbank Irrigation District, now operated by West Kelowna which became a new home to 1,000 yearling rainbows June 8; and Grizzly Swamp up on the Aberdeen Plateau, operated by Greater Vernon Water which received 3,000 rainbow fry this September.

As well, 5,000 yearling rainbows were released May 30 at Bear Lake, also known as Lambly Lake, which is operated by West Kelowna; and 10,000 rainbow fry were released Sept. 4 in Whitehead Lake in Summerland’s chain of reservoirs.

That chain includes Crescent Lake, Headwaters and Thirsk as well, while the West Kelowna group of reservoirs include Jackpine, Horseshoe, Paynter, Dobbin, Lambly and Tadpole Lakes.

McCulloch Lake is the main reservoir for another irrigation district, as well as a popular fishing and camping area; Beaver and Dee are reservoirs serving Lake Country; while Belgo is the reservoir for users in the Black Mountain Irrigation District; Rose Valley, Big Horn and Esperon are used by residents of the Lakeview Heights area of West Kelowna.

Even Okanagan Lake is a reservoir used by thousands of residents for domestic and irrigation water, although accommodations have been made in controlling its level now in order to protect spawning kokanee.

Most of us drink treated surface water stored in a reservoir.

Many of us also fish in those reservoirs.

As they are stretched to serve more and more people, and as we become more conscious of the importance of protecting the source of our water and of safe maintenance of the dams on those reservoirs, the habitat they provide to aquatic and riparian creatures will take second place to human needs.

Since those humans are us, how can we argue with that?

There are lakes around here which are not reservoirs, but the most popular and common fishing spots are former streams or wetlands where a dam was constructed to create storage for water to serve the Okanagan Valley.

Because roads of some sort had to be cleared for access to build, then maintain those dams, there was co-incidentally access provided to anglers, campers, bird-watchers and others who enjoy the outdoors, and they became known as fishing lakes.

Severe draw-downs in these lakes puts stress on the fish living in them, and can cause fish kills, but how can you fault a water utility for looking after its infrastructure—the dam that is used to provide the water that flows out of your tap?

What can you say when they complain about your use of the water or the foreshore as a toilet, sink or garbage can?

Don’t forget the connections when you’re enjoying an upland lake, and be prepared to be considered a secondary user, not the primary one, if what you’re using is a reservoir as well as a fishing hole.

As one water manager commented to me recently, “Ducks get in the way of good water quality.” I imagine anglers do too.

Judie Steeves writes about outdoors issues for the Capital News.


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