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Water shortages and conservation remain a hot topic

Water shortages and conservation remain a hot topic
The Zosel Dam in Oroville, WA helps to maintain the level of Osoyoos Lake. It also forms a barrier for sockeye salmon migrating up the Okanogan River in Washington to Osoyoos Lake. (Richard McGuire photo)

The Zosel Dam in Oroville, WA helps to maintain the level of Osoyoos Lake as required under an international agreement. (Richard McGuire file photo)

The droughts of the summer are over, but water continues to be hot topic in and around Osoyoos these days.

On Monday, Osoyoos town council held a closed-door meeting to discuss strategies for dealing with water shortages, including the possibility of introducing residential water metering.

Mayor Sue McKortoff said councillors, who met with the two water councillors, made good progress. Results of the discussions will be brought forward later to a regular open council meeting, she said.

But even before council met, a number of local residents were commenting on water measures in letters to the Osoyoos Times and comments on the paper’s website.

The debate was kicked off by a letter to the paper by local resident Jack Johnston published on Nov. 4.

Johnston took issue with the metering proposal and argued there is no water shortage.

“Osoyoos Lake remained at normal levels and water continued to flow over the Zosel Dam and eventually into the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean,” Johnston wrote, arguing that the town draws its water from aquifers by six deep wells.

“At no time was there any notification during the extended drought that water levels were dropping in these underground aquifers. If the water level is not dropping, then there is absolutely no reason for Osoyoos to restrict water usage.”

Officials involved in water conservation take issue with these arguments, but they acknowledge that important data remains unknown.

Barry Romanko, chief administrative officer with the Town of Osoyoos, said the town has only just started to maintain historical records of well levels and regular readings of all but one well will only begin next year.

“We have east and west aquifers that supply our well system,” Romanko said in an email. “An assessment of wells was completed in 2012 that determined that only Well #8 is under potential ground water influence.”

The provincial Ministry of Environment also maintains 119 observation wells throughout the province to monitor groundwater long-term trends.

Most of these – 78 per cent – show that water levels are stable or increasing.

The four observation wells around Osoyoos are classed as stable, but the government hasn’t published data for recent years.

But the levels of Osoyoos Lake are not a good indicator of water shortages, argues Anna Warwick Sears, executive director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB).

That’s because the lake level is regulated by dams in Penticton and Oroville to maintain the lake at levels set by rules agreed to by the International Joint Commission, a body with representatives from Canada and the United States that oversees shared waterways.

And because there are hydrological connections between the lake level and nearby groundwater levels, the level of the wells may also be controlled artificially by the operation of the dams.

There was only enough water being released at the Zosel Dam in Oroville to try to keep the fish alive, said Sears.

“It’s just kind of like a trickle in, trickle out,” she said. “If you do that in a bathtub and have a slow leak out your drain and a slow bit coming out of your tap, you can keep the water high.”

Nonetheless, although the dam operator received permission to raise the lake an extra six inches to stockpile water to meet needs at the end of the summer and into the early fall, there was not enough water to bring the lake to the level allowed.

Water users along the Okanogan River in Washington State experienced extreme drought conditions last summer and they too would dispute the suggestion that there was no water shortage.

Washington State was especially hard hit by record low levels on the Similkameen River, which provides the bulk of the water into the Okanogan, but there was insufficient water from Osoyoos Lake to make up the shortfall.

Al Josephy, the official with Washington State Department of Ecology, who oversees the operation of the Zosel Dam, notes that drought was declared in Okanogan County in the spring and extended statewide in May.

Close to 200 water rights holders in Okanogan County received letters from the state warning them their water use would be curtailed and many saw their water use cut off at various points in the summer.

“Our water rights holders below the dam all the way to the Columbia and beyond were mightily affected by the drought,” said Josephy.

Particularly hard hit, he said, were users in the Oroville-Tonasket Irrigation District.

River volumes dropped far below normal lows, threatening at times to fall below level needed to keep intakes covered with water.

Most of the farms in the area are orchards, Josephy said.

“Perennial crops are particularly sensitive to this whole paradigm,” he said. “If your hay crop goes fallow for a year, next year you can plant alfalfa again and be back. If your fruit trees die, you’re out of luck. It’s 10 years to get back into business.”

Washington plans to lower the winter level of Osoyoos Lake to 910.2 feet by late November and maintain it through the winter at this level, which is almost a foot higher than the normal winter level of 909.5 feet.

This is in anticipation of below-normal snowmelt and runoff heading into next spring.

Sears said Canada doesn’t have a legal obligation to supply water for irrigation in the U.S. However, she pointed out that it is in Canada’s interest to supply enough water to the channel south of Zosel Dam to keep fish alive.

“That’s a huge economic boon to the Okanagan and it’s really important for us environmentally,” she said.

Still, the important point, she said, is that Osoyoos is Canada’s only desert, there are water shortages happening all over, so why waste it.

“It’s an incredibly valuable resource that has all kinds of different needs for it,” she said. “I think people are misled by the level of the lake. They should be looking at the dry hillsides and thinking about how much water they actually need.”

McKortoff said council is considering a number of questions about water management, including water restrictions next year and the budget implications of water metering.

A recent report done for the town by Urban Systems of Kelowna said the largest contributor to high water consumption in the summer season in Osoyoos is lawn irrigation, particularly at single-family residences.

The report also noted that the sprinkling regulations imposed last summer “resulted in only a marginal reduction in residential water consumption.”

There is a tendency for people to use water on the days allowed under the bylaw, even if they wouldn’t otherwise do so, the report said.

Universal water metering for municipalities in the B.C. Interior, on the other hand, has on average reduced consumption by around 20 per cent, the report said.

“Having explored universal metering to some extent already, the town certainly understands the potential results of universal metering, but is equally aware of the public and political sensitivities of this approach,” the report adds.

Sears points out that utilities in B.C. are not allowed to charge more for water than the cost of the service, so money can’t be generated from meters for other purposes.

“People are paying for what they need and it makes sense,” she said. “It’s a fairness thing. The people who use more pay more.”

McKortoff acknowledges that flowers and green grass are part of the town’s appeal as a resort municipality and says the town has no intention of telling people they can’t water anymore.

Next year however, she said, may begin with some restrictions.

“My feeling is I don’t think we’ll ever go back to saying, ‘water whenever you want,’” she said.

RICHARD McGUIRE

Osoyoos Times

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