By Steve Hubrecht

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Lake Windermere may get most of the attention (thanks mostly to being far busier with summer boat traffic), but the Columbia Valley’s other main lake — Columbia Lake — is just as big, just as beautiful, and just as biodiverse. Earlier this past summer the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) finalized its new, updated Columbia Lake management plan.

The new plan replaces the old one, which dates back to 1997. As RDEK planning supervisor, Karen MacLeod, explained to the Pioneer, it was high time to re-assess the state of Columbia Lake.

“The 25 years between the plans have seen significant changes in development around the lake, both with the RDEK and the Village of Canal Flats. Changes around the lake have also seen additional lands that are being managed for conservation interest,” noted MacLeod.  “In terms of lake management, the community has become much more engaged about the lake (in the past 25 years), with a citizen-led water monitoring program, (and with) increased concern about the ecological and recreational carrying capacities of the lake.”

Another major initiative now in place that wasn’t there in 1997, is the designation of Columbia Lake East Side as an Indigenous Cultural Landscape.  

“With the increase of recreational activity,  our residents are certainly more aware (now, as compared with 25 years ago) of the need to manage our beach and water access in a responsible manner,” Canal Flats chief administrative officer (CAO), Richard Wayken told the Pioneer.

The new Columbia Lake Management plan is meant to help local government officials understand the key issues associated with lake and guide their decision making. 

Like the Lake Windermere management plan, the Columbia Lake management plan outlines clear recommendations on a range of issues, and just like the Lake Windermere management plan, these issues include moorage: although the number of boats on Columbia Lake is nowhere near the number of boats using Lake Windermere, the new plan recommends that both the RDEK and Canal Flats maintain surface zoning to regulate mooring buoys and docks.

The plan supports new small marinas at Canal Flats’ Eagle Nest and Painted Ridge subdivisions, and keeps the small marina at Columere Park, but aside from that, no new marinas are supported.

In general, the plan heavily favours improving public access and discouraging increasing private access. Specifically, the plan encourages local officials to examine options for upgrading the Tilley Memorial Park boat launch ramp, particularly to allow two boats to be launched at the same time.  The plan supports keeping a tiered fee structure for the Tilley boat launch, pointing out that it is funded by Canal Flats taxpayers, but benefits users from the village and from elsewhere.

Tilley is particularly important to Canal Flats residents, and that was apparent in the feedback generated during the planning process, said Wayken. He explained, “Tilley Park is the gateway to the south part of Columbia Lake. Certainly, the residents have a strong sense of pride and ownership. This means they take access and stewardship very seriously.”

The new plan recommends keeping the Canal Flats’ non-motorized boat launch on the southwest corner of the lake, but suggests adding educational signs about boating and recreation use in the wetlands. It also suggests that any use of public access points for small marinas within Canal Flats “should ensure that broader public use of the lake access is not alienated”.

At the north end of Columbia Lake, the plan does not support adding a motorized boat launch within Columbia Lake Provincial Park, but does recommend that local officials consider formalizing access points — with signage, infrastructure and parking — for non-motorized watercraft along the Columbia River channel, past the outflow from Columbia Lake.

MacLeod told the Pioneer that quite a lot of work went into creating the new plan. The process stretched more than two years;  it started in early 2020 and ended this past spring, including two rounds of public engagement, a technical steering committee, considerable research and plenty of dialogue with various stakeholders.

“A strong sense of community and pride of place was evident in the (public feedback) responses.  Respondents recognized that in order to maintain the components that made Columbia Lake desirable, would require a cooperative approach to management — of natural and built assets,” said MacLeod. 

She noted that compared with Lake Windermere, and further south, with Wasa Lake, “Columbia Lake is unique, as it has very limited lands directly adjacent to the lake and limited public access points, and it is completely undeveloped on the east side, with the exception of the portion within Canal Flats.” These distinct traits are both an asset from an ecological perspective, and a limitation from a recreational and social perspectives, added MacLeod. 

“The realization of the plan in 2022 wrapped up a comprehensive process; it is always nice to have plans completed and supported. Adoption by both local governments with jurisdiction on the lake and the upland parcels will provide an opportunity for collaboration on the implementation and next steps,” said MacLeod.