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9th June 2019
Muddied waters: how clearcut logging is driving a water crisis in B.C.’s interior

Community watersheds across the province were once off-limits to logging, but in recent decades that’s all changed. Now communities like Peachland face escalating costs as mudslides trigger boil-water advisories and the need for pricey water-treatment plants

Ben Parfitt May 31, 2019

Richard Smith calls Peachland home. He has since 1947, the year he arrived in British Columbia’s Okanagan region as a four-year-old boy with his parents from Alberta’s oil fields.

As a young man working at a local sawmill to save money for his university tuition, Smith was impressed by the quality of the water that flowed out of the forested valleys behind the community and emptied into Okanagan Lake.

“The water was spotlessly clean,” Smith says wistfully. “Oh, yeah, it was perfect.”

But during the past decade, the retired teacher says, his town’s water has turned perfectly awful. It is often murky and unsafe to drink for months on end.

Now, in a big expense for a small town, more than $24 million is to be spent on a new water-treatment plant to treat the water from Peachland Creek, the town’s primary water supply. The hefty price tag is already $5 million more than originally budgeted and will likely climb higher when a connection is made to carry water to the plant from the town’s backup water supply, Trepanier Creek.

Upon completion, the plant’s filters will, hopefully, screen out the fine sediments that have triggered numerous warnings from public health officials. The water will then be disinfected with chlorine and ultraviolet light to kill pathogens, such as Cryptosporidium, that have caused waterborne-disease outbreaks in the Okanagan and elsewhere.

A 2017 landslide downslope of a logging road, which temporarily blocked Peachland Creek, was an emphatic reminder to the town’s mayor and her fellow councillors that they must act. The slide caused the water’s turbidity, or cloudiness level, to jump far above the threshold that typically triggers boil-water orders.

Sadly, all of this was avoidable, Smith and others say. The forests behind Peachland have been extensively logged, the land mined, cattle-grazed and crisscrossed with roads. Clear-cut logging, in particular, has accelerated in recent years, with potentially serious downstream consequences.

Multiple use to multiple abuse

Public-health officials agree that the best way to get water that is the stuff of Smith’s memories is to use a “multi-barrier” approach.

Think of each barrier as a link in a chain.

The first barrier is the land itself — specifically, community watersheds or the lands draining toward a town’s water source. If those lands are kept relatively pristine, the water flowing from melting snow packs and rainfall is naturally filtered and less likely to be contaminated.

The other two barriers are water-treatment plants and the pipes that distribute that water. Take care of barrier one and barriers two and three are easier to maintain.

The City of New York famously places a premium on barrier one. Its more than nine million residents draw their drinking water from a watershed with three protected lakes and 19 reservoirs. By protecting the lands around those waters, the city continues to operate the largest unfiltered drinking-water system in the United States.

But in numerous community watersheds in B.C., the situation is vastly different. Logging and mining put communities like Peachland and resource industries on a collision course. Multiple use of watersheds is resulting in multiple abuse of water resources, with the communities in harm’s way left to foot the bill.

Fires in a temperate rainforest?

Will Koop is a Vancouver resident who became active in environmental issues in the 1980s, when the forests surrounding the city’s primary drinking-water reservoirs were being logged.

The stated reason for logging was to clear away “decadent” trees that some foresters claimed posed fire risks.

Fire risks in a temperate rainforest? Koop was baffled. He began surreptitiously hiking through the watersheds. The more he saw, the more he believed the trees consistently targeted for logging were the oldest, biggest, and solidest. Dollars drove the logging — not a desire to protect water quality.

The light that Koop and others shone on that logging eventually forced the Greater Vancouver Water District to halt the practice in 1999 — something that the district could do because it had a 999-year lease to the Crown lands surrounding its water reservoirs, a level of control that is the envy of municipal governments across B.C.

Today, an area the size of 150 Stanley Parks is protected, and local governments link the“ecological health ” of their watersheds to clean drinking water.

The birth and death of reserves

After the Vancouver campaign, Koop began to wonder why so much logging was occurring in other community watersheds.

“Community watersheds comprise only 1.5 per cent of the land base,” Koop says. “Yet there is such a frenzy for getting into these places.What’s this all about?”

Koop’s archival research revealed that as far back as 1888, provincial authorities had powers to designate certain areas of public or Crown land as “reserves” that would be “set apart” for special uses such as protecting water.

In old provincial Forest Service files, Koop found maps from the early 1930s identifying the two watersheds supplying Peachland with its water — the Peachland Creek and Trepanier watersheds — as protected reserves. The words “No Timber Sales” were prominently stamped on both maps.

By the early 1970s, almost 300 watershed reserves were formally designated in B.C. and the Ministry of Environment was in charge of the reserves or community watersheds. Logging was supposedly ruled out on all such lands, with only minor exceptions allowed in cases where watersheds had not officially been designated as community water supplies.

But Koop found that despite such protections, logging did occur in many watersheds, including steadily increasing logging upstream of Peachland. The Ministry of Forests had effectively taken over control of community watershed lands. They were there to be logged, and in many cases they were.

A weary watershed on World Water Day

Taryn Skalbania moved to Peachland in 1991 from the West Coast, where she was used to high-quality water and communities that took watershed protection seriously.

When Skalbania first arrived, she found Peachland’s water fine, if somewhat unremarkable.

But by the early 2000s, there were days when the water was noticeably murky. By 2012, the water coming out of her taps stayed that way for weeks on end. Then the time span shifted again — this time to months.

That grim reality, among others, prompted Skalbania to become co-chair of the Peachland Watershed Protection Alliance, a co-spokeswoman for the BC Coalition for Forestry Reform and a steadfast critic of land-use decisions in her community’s watersheds.

In all of the years of boil-water advisories, 2017 stands out. That year, flooding occurred in many communities bordering Okanagan Lake. High runoff in Peachland’s watersheds also triggered devastating landslides that sullied the town’s water for months on end.

“Dirty water, historically, for freshet for two weeks is one thing,” Skalbania told The Narwhal. “But mudslides that disable the entire town’s water is another.”

The severity of events that year convinced many that clear-cut logging was at least partly responsible for what had unfolded.

“They contribute to how the water comes off of the mountain. They contribute to flooding. They contribute to the degradation of our water,” Chris Eneas, a Penticton Indian Band elder, said of the clear-cuts, which he saw firsthand during a field trip to the watershed in late March during World Water Day.

Many of the clear-cuts were at high elevations, where heavy snowpacks accumulated due to the lack of trees — precisely the same conditions that residents in the southern British Columbia community of Grand Forks believe contributed to the severe floods that beset their community last year.

In Peachland’s case, all the added water helped to trigger mudslides in 2017 that damaged the drinking-water intakes in the two watersheds supplying the community. Repairing the intakes cost more than $260,000, a drop in the bucket compared to the hefty $24-million-plus water-treatment project now underway.

But Skalbania notes that even the best water-treatment facilities cannot cope with water that is too dirty. Underscoring that point, every single water system in the Okanagan had at least one boil-water advisory in 2017, she notes.

If communities hope to keep such events to a minimum, there’s one sure way to do it, Skalbania says.

“Better source protection. It’s a no-brainer. Just ask Vancouver, Victoria, Portland, Seattle, New York.”

All the cities Skalbania mentions have protected water sources.

...continued in Part 2