Strengthening water conservation efforts in the Okanagan Valley

Okanagan Basin Water Board provides vital link between water resource managers and community stakeholders

Okanagan Basin Water Board chair Sue McKortoff (left) received a congratulatory certificate from Kelowna-Lake Country MP Tracy Gray marking the water agency's 50th anniversary in 2020 at an event held in Bertram Creek Regional Park.  Gray was unable to attend the event, as the certificate was presented to McKortoff by her assistant Gina Lang. (Barry Gerding - File photo)

The Okanagan Valley watershed provides a series of streams and creeks that ultimately feed into larger bodies of water across the valley.

In the same way, the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OKWB) continues to stream information initiatives to help raise public awareness and potential solutions to water conflict and management issues facing communities and stakeholders across the region.

In her annual address to the OBWB annual general meeting on Sept. 10, executive director Anna Warwick Sears said the past 12 months has been a very unusual year to carry out that process, with the realities of the COVID-19, severe drought and multiple wildfires across the Okanagan watershed presenting challenges on “how to get our business done.”

With OBWB staff working at home and direct communication with other water stakeholders having to overcome the COVID prevention social distancing rules, Warwick Sears said it’s a tribute to her staff and community members how the work continued.

“I was really impressed by how everyone came together and just had this great attitude to do our work and we were not going to be slowed down or impeded by all this strangeness around us,” she said.

The ‘our work’ she referred to was the ongoing partnership with Okanagan Basin communities and stakeholders to pool resources and expertise to address water conversation and use issues that arise.

Last year, the OBWB provided grants of $350,000 generated by regional district property taxes for water quality enhancement projects and $1,290,077 for infrastructure grants, largely for community sewer upgrade projects to continue efforts to reduce excessive nutrient degradation of the lake system.

The OBWB also spent $663,000 on aquatic weed control measures, essentially the ongoing efforts to manage the Eurasian Milfoil introduced into the lake system in the 1970s with no solution on how to eradicate it.

The harvested milfoil is trucked off to two farms where the owners use the nitrogen-rich waste as compost.

“We are continuing to keep the beaches clean. There are certain issues with permitting the long-term maintenance of the milfoil endangering freshwater mussels in the lake but we are working with government ministers to better understand what the impact of the milfoil harvesting is,” Warwick Sears said.

“The negative impacts of milfoil vs. the impact of removing the milfoil will be a long-term process.”

Water management initiatives, both water science research and adopting conservation measures, continues to be a key thread woven into the OBWB’s existence dating back to its inception in the early 1970s.

Warwick Sears said dealing with variable climate extremes, better understanding the impact on the environment above and below the lake shorelines, restoring the number of the hydrometer monitoring stations closed by cuts in government funding, flood mapping, addressing conflicts between agriculture water demands and drought preparation planning, and wetlands enhancement and preservation strategy.

She noted wetlands, much of which along the Okanagan Valley shoreline has been lost to lakefront development in recent decades, are important tools in controlling flood conditions in the ability of floodplains to absorb and release excessive water flows.

Warwick Sears also acknowledged the positive feedback received from teachers to water history and conservation information provided in a curriculum for local schools, dealing with the introduction to Okanagan watershed and climate impact.

A third guide is now being worked on about developing and recognizing existing outdoor learning spaces by Syilx elders and other water educators.

“We are working with the ONA (Okanagan Nation Alliance) to get a specific Syilx perspective on water for this next guide,” she said.

Christopher Derickson, Westbank First Nation chief and an external director on the board, offered praise to the OBWB for expanding the opportunity for Indigenous philosophy about water management to be engaged in the planning process.

“Our elders teach us that water is like our relative, not a resource to be managed, but something living in itself and related to us,” Derickson said.

“We treat things that are related or relative to us better than things that are not…We always offer a home for our relatives so as a society we should commit to do the same within the Okanagan Basin Water Board communities, to start to think and see water differently. Not as a resource, but as a relative, something that brings us all closer together.”

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