Submitted by Living Lakes Canada
Considered one of North America’s most important water towers, the Canadian Columbia Basin supplies fresh water to millions of people downstream in both Canada and the United States. But climate change is changing the Columbia Basin’s historically steady water supply.
As impacts of heat waves, long periods of drought, out-of-control wildfires, low flows in rivers and streams, and receding glaciers compound year after year, the water security that humans and ecosystems rely on in this region is coming under threat.
To better understand what’s happening to fresh water, more information is needed to allow local communities prepare and plan for change. In response to this need, Living Lakes Canada is building a network of water and climate monitoring stations across the Basin.
The information collected by these stations will help address data gaps in government-run networks, which have seen a decline in monitoring stations in recent decades. As part of the project’s 2022 pilot year, a combination of hydrometric (i.e. water quantity), lake level, and climate monitoring stations were installed in three regions of the Columbia Basin. One of these pilot areas is the Columbia Valley region, referred to by the project as the Columbia-Kootenay Headwaters (CKH).
Since the fall of 2022, 12 new monitoring sites have been collecting data in the CKH region. With the first year of data collection drawing to a close, the program has already gained a better understanding of how surface level climate events are impacting important freshwater sources and waterways.
Across the CKH, lower-than-average snowpacks, followed by above-average spring air temperatures, contributed to an alarmingly early spring melt. This result was observed at the Bruce and Assiniboine Creeks monitoring stations, where strong snow melt led to peak stream flows and water levels in mid-May.
Rain events in late May and early June maintained surface water levels until a prolonged dry period took hold of the CKH region in mid-June. In addition to sustained high temperatures and low snowpack, the lack of precipitation led to the continued decline of surface water throughout the region.
The streams in the CKH region that are dependent on glacial melt, such as Delphine Creek, were also greatly impacted by this year’s climate extremes. As glaciers melt, water travels beneath the glacier and collects fine glacial sediment. This is what makes mountain rivers and streams cloudy, or turbid. Extreme turbidity and high flows observed at Delphine Creek in July demonstrate the volume of glacial meltwater impacting the creek.
As glaciers continue to recede and disappear, continued monitoring will allow us to track the changing contributions from glacially-fed streams to water systems. This information can be used to model other nearby basins that contain glaciers, many of which are important water sources for local residents.
To read the full memo summarizing Year 1 data collected up to the end of June in the CKH region, visit www.livinglakescanada.ca/cbwmf. A full report of the first year of data will be released early 2024.
Living Lakes Canada is a national non-profit organization based in the Columbia Basin working towards the protection of Canada’s freshwater.