The Epistle of Q — Chapter One Hundred one

The Kids ARE Alright…

I had the pleasure of being invited to the AGM of the Okanagan Water Board a week or so ago. As well two long time friends/colleagues were there as well – all of us of sufficient age to remember the heady days of the federal/provincial Okanagan Basin Water Study (started in 1969, but its most vital days were 1971-74). This study, ground-breaking at the time, attempted to determine what the future of water management in the Okanagan Valley to 2020 could and should be like. The reason the three of us wanted to be at the AGM was to raise the question: As next year is 2020, how do we recognize the Study’s contributions to the evolution of the Valley to 2020 and is it time to ask what such contributions can help us get another twenty-five if not fifty years further? The AGM was interesting in itself, but the conversations that followed both at lunch with the three of us and then at dinner when three of the professional leaders of the Water Board joined us were even more special.

There are a couple of caveats I need to say now though before going further (as I do not want you to have a heart attack about some of the things I am going to say):
Climate Change is a fact – how do I know? Because where I live (in the Okanagan Valley) several millennia ago was under three kilometres or more of solid ice, and now it isn’t…it is not that climate change isn’t happening, it’s that it has been happening forever (and as for melting of ice – the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta has been receding since long before Suzuki created the scare or DiCaprio experienced a chinook). By the way, the scare tactics that are being perpetrated may be more of a problem than a path to a better future!
• While much is made of the role the carbon dioxide plays in the current shifting of temperatures, it is neither a pollutant nor a major component of our atmosphere (the other day I was reading a report that stated that Nitrogen makes up 78+% and Oxygen contributes about another 21% which leaves about 1% for a whole range of other gases). I believe that the consensus is that CO2 is perhaps 0.04% of the total; in fact there is about 23 times the amount of argon as there is CO2. Thus I’m not sure how vital any attempt to control CO2 will be in the management of anything to do with climate.
• This seemingly rush to judgement on carbon dioxide has, in fact, distracted all of us from some very serious problems that we should be dealing with on our spaceship mother earth – pollution of our oceans (including Montréal & Victoria dumping raw sewage into the sea) being a big one, over-population and the equally dramatic shifting of peoples due to storms and human conflict, inadequate management of forests which do serve as a carbon sink for those still wanting to reduce CO2, and generally preparing for a potential shift in climatic conditions globally as well as locally.

Okay…now here’s the core reflection that I wish to make as a result of my time around the Water Board’s AGM. This group actually is doing something positive about climate shift/variability – it is trying to be proactive and help us all adjust — to actually adapt to new realities. It is monitoring water demand, especially in the changing aspects of agriculture — for example: cherries are now being grown further north while more and more vineyards are being established throughout the central and southern aspects of the family. It is also examining the impacts of water on the increased urbanization throughout the valley, but particularly in the cities of Kelowna, West Kelowna, Vernon and Penticton where there are more and more housing developments on the hillsides which is impacting runoff (more pavement, more rapid movement of water during/after rainfall) as well as fire management (more people cut down more trees and make fires easier to spread while requiring more water available to fight them). As well, more people use more water. So the Water Board has embarked on a number of campaigns to educate people on best practices to minimize the water they do use. (Sidebar: the Water Board needs to talk to the City of Penticton – it has a watering system for its many hanging baskets of flowers throughout the downtown that are there to add beauty but every morning these same baskets are overflowing during their irrigation period as the water seems endless. Unless the City is trying to grow pavement, this is a real waste of water; the other day the irony of this was too evident as one of the baskets was very near a sign telling tourists that they need to help conserve water as we are in a Level 2 drought!!)

The Water Board does not concentrate solely on water quantity issues. It has a major role in the support of best practices in water quality management. Eurasian milfoil came into the Okanagan lakes system in the sixties and quickly spread as there was no real natural predator. While the rapid spread has been largely contained due to better sewage treatment reducing nutrient loadings, there still is the need for removal of patches of the weed. The Water Board runs a major harvesting system that has helped keep many public beaches free from the invasive plant. More importantly the Water Board, due to its taxing powers and ability to negotiate financial contributions from senior governments, has done much to implement the original Water Study’s recommendations to install and/or upgrade the sewage systems of all urban areas in the Valley. And these upgrades are significant – tertiary treatment is the aim so that  phosphorus and nitrogen loadings among other negative contributions are drastically reduced. Even smaller centres like the community in and around Okanagan Falls are shifting from individual septic systems to collected and treated sewage and waste water.

Furthermore, there is an effort to ensure that invasive aquatic species (such as zebra mussels) are kept out of the Valley which in turn makes more a better recreation and sport-fishing environment. This coupled to better water quantity management has also provided significant support to the work of the Okanagan Nation Alliance to bring back salmon to the Okanagan. This effort will be addressed in more detail another time; but, for the moment let us simply say that it is another sign of the proactive nature of water management that the Water Board is driving in the Okanagan.

Another observation that should be shared is that the on-going/regularized involvement of politicians has increased significantly since the days of the Okanagan Water Study. Not only is the Water Board itself made up of various local politicians from across the region, but at the AGM numerous current and former politicians were in attendance (other than the above-referenced Tom Siddon). While this is a public event, it isn’t a crowded one – attendance by politicians is a sign that it simply is an important event to attend.

So generally I am quite happy about the management of water in the Okanagan. The young team of professionals is giving good direction and support to their political masters on the Board. They are also undertaking valuable research and public outreach. They are energetic, bright and forward-thinking: providing leadership on key matters related to those aspects of our environment and climate that can be adapted to or at least managed.

There are a couple concerns though that I have and these need to be addressed with significant support from both the provincial and federal governments.
• Since the days of the Okanagan Water Study the number of monitoring stations related to water quantity have been reduced. In particular the federal government has significantly cut back its support for such research to the point there are perhaps only half as many stations as the Study had to work with on its research tasks. This is not a positive move and needs to be corrected. Good research needs good data and in a place where drought can occur even after a winter/spring of considerable snow/water fall it is essential that every tributary of any significance is properly monitored. With the Director already in possession of a doctorate and her Associate currently working on his, capable supervision of graduate students is readily available to be put to work collecting, studying, comparing and developing long-range forecasts re the water quantity data that could be available with at least a return to the number of stations utilized during the study. With the presence of UBC-Okanagan already in the Valley, and the environmental studies interests of Okanagan College as well as institutions at the coast, some very important findings could be made very quickly to determine better paths going forward into the next fifty years of the Okanagan water management. Federal and provincial politicians take note: get that funding to the Water Board a.s.a.p. – not only will it help the Okanagan, but the research that results can be helpful to other water systems in the province and across the country.
• While the Water Board does a good job of public outreach and engagement, there is an area that still has not been addressed in a deep and lasting way – a formal K-12 educational curriculum package for use in public and private schools. It was a failing of the Okanagan Basin Study’s Public Involvement Program (which I directed) and needs to be corrected before setting out on the next fifty years. There is a model – some time after my work in the Okanagan I was asked to join the federal/provincial Salmonid Enhancement Program (SEP)to bring an effective, formal Public Involvement Program (PIP) into being. Before agreeing to do so, I negotiated that I would also get to lead the development of an education program package. The result of that aspect of my work was Salmonids in the Classroom that is still in use today (albeit with some revisions and expansions). This type of project needs to be mounted in the Okanagan but with the central focus being water management. If there is to be effective community understanding of the vital nature of water management in this age of climate shifts and weather variability, people from an early age need to be engaged in thoughtful, disciplined study of the resource. And not just in the physical sciences, but also in the social sciences and the humanities – there are many avenues that can be explored. There are many good resources (including excellent tool-kits) already available through the work of the Communications team at the Water Board, but these need to be brought together in a coherent and progressive curriculum package – one that has some applications within primary, elementary and secondary settings. The materials should be integrated such that the social studies support the science experiments, the stories help understand the management and policy requirements, the arts encourage the celebration of the resource. And what is learned at the primary level becomes a foundation for the elementary student and this in turn leads to a more sophisticated learning moment in secondary school. Moreover it cannot be solely a classroom experience, there must be dynamic research moments that are carried out in laboratories both inside and outside the school building. The expression hands on must permeate the curriculum resulting in an outcome that gives the student, the parent, the community continual heads up insights into what is and what may yet come. Including the time necessary to test out and validate the proposed curriculum modules, a time frame of three, maybe even four, years is necessary. And the project, while monitored by the provincial Department of Education, should be contracted out so that as much flexibility and access to knowledgeable sources as possible is made available to the project. The salmonids curriculum received the approval of the ministry when it was done, but the ministry was not the controlling factor, it was a partner – this made it much easier to access the necessary fisheries and related experts and also ensure that the writing teams were themselves diverse and readily available.
• A third concern is somewhat more tentative because I haven’t been able to garner all the facts. There is conversation that there will be increased co-management of water in the future with Aboriginal peoples. At the moment the Okanagan Nation Alliance has yet to nominate a delegate to sit on the Water Board itself. This is not a good sign and needs to be corrected before any co-management concept really has a chance of working out for the benefit of all, including the water.

Otherwise, things are pretty good in the Valley. The Okanagan Basin Study was a great start to improving water resource management. However, the Okanagan Water Board has moved the bar upward quite significantly. There are some tweaks I’d like to see; nevertheless, we are about to reach 2020 in a better state that most of us thought way back when. The keys remain: tone down the blame and ramp up the involvement. Schools like they were/are as a result of SEP/SITC should become key partners including bringing busloads of students to future Water Board AGM’s as well as having a student delegate from each Regional District sit on the Board’s Stewardship Council.

So, yes there should be a review of the Study and its various recommendations (and the back-up research) as part of the 2020 celebrations – but much of that could be done by the teams developing the education curriculum and installing/utilizing the needed additional water monitoring stations!! And any such celebration ought not to be considered a one off event – we need to think through the approach: education is paramount, conversation is paramount, and local government commitment is even more important (the re-shaping of land through development, overall land use planning, water management including sewage and waste, recreation & business/industry). Let’s use this opportunity to be more collaborative and focus of solutions that are on the ground. Perhaps we encourage a re-shaping of policy and the implementation thereof: instead of annoying the public with ineffective carbon taxes, we undertake massive tree-planting exercises (students can certainly be partners in this) as well as other carbon-sink options. Or, maybe instead of banning tankers and pipelines we should invest in spill recovery & mitigation techniques. And instead of simply ranting or posturing, we put forward alternatives such as developing tax structures whereby energy producers contribute to new alternate energy systems (either on their own or by supporting new start-ups).

Remember, looking ahead fifty years is not only a very valuable exercise, in the case of the Okanagan it is a very relevant challenge – just realize that it comes more quickly than you think. I know, because I remember my days on the Basin Study as if it was yesterday and now I’m pondering living the 2020 moment.