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26th September 2021
For ranchers, farmers and foresters alike, the extreme dry conditions in the Kettle River watershed have forced a reckoning with the region’s intensive clearcut logging — and what people across the region can do to remedy decades of human impact to sensitive ecosystems

September 4, 2021

Doug Fossen’s cowboy hat bobs rhythmically as he strides across his family’s ranchland west of Rock Creek, British Columbia. Beneath a large, oval belt buckle bearing his surname, his boots swish through a pasture of green alfalfa. To the right, rows of tightly spaced feed corn stretch uphill towards an open forest of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.

Abruptly, the sound of his walking changes. Instead of whispering, each footfall crunches, dead grass breaking beneath hard soles, dust and insects beginning to rise in his wake. He stops and points to the parched earth. “See? As soon as you leave our irrigation area you enter grasshopper land,” he tells The Narwhal.

Since the first week of August, the Kettle River watershed, located in central southern B.C., has been under level five drought, the provincial government’s highest rating. According to the B.C. drought information portal, areas assigned level five are “almost certain” to face adverse impacts on socio-economic and ecosystem values. Until recently, the region was the only one listed at level five, but in the past two weeks the Salmon River basin east of Kelowna and both East and West Vancouver Island have joined the extreme rating.

Since a province-wide heat wave in June, stream flows across the Kettle River watershed’s eight sub-basins have been dangerously low. For cattle ranchers like Fossen, who rely on creeks to irrigate pasture and feed crops, this means making adjustments and praying for rain.

“We’ve consolidated a lot of our irrigated land to conserve water,” he says, adding that they recently installed centre-pivot irrigation systems which, although expensive, use water more efficiently. “It’s just really stressful right now and you’re not sure if you’ll make it.”

According to an Aug. 13 article in the government of Alberta’s Agri-News, severe drought affecting much of Western Canada and the U.S., is leaving ranchers facing tough choices when it comes to managing their herds. A scarcity of feed due to strained, dry pastures has led to increased feed costs forcing many farmers to cull large portions of their stock, which could flood the beef market, lower the price and compound the hardship — something that Fossen is already thinking about.

“Our biggest problem is this fall we’re going to have to deal with a price drop,” he says. “That’ll be our biggest hit.”

Despite this, Fossen, who serves as the president of the Kettle River Stockman’s Association, considers himself lucky. Since his father bought the ranch in 1976 they have been combating drought by adding seep-fed water troughs on the Crown land where their herd — currently sized at 350 mother cows and their calves — graze between spring and fall. They have also built weirs on some small creeks to create pond-like reservoirs from which they can pump water. Because of this and their irrigation systems they, unlike some other ranchers in the region, may not have to buy feed in the fall at exorbitant prices.

“That’s what ranching teaches us,” he says, “in these drought years we are living off our management decisions of the last 20 years.”

Connecting the dots between clearcuts and drought

According to a drought management plan published by the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary in 2020, the Kettle River watershed is dominated by a “nival hydrological regime,” meaning the watershed relies primarily on snowmelt to sustain the flows of its rivers and streams. This makes the watershed especially susceptible to both flooding and drought as the majority of the yearly flow is released during the spring freshet when the bulk of the snowpack melts.

In 2018, Grand Forks experienced severe flooding which some residents and industry professionals linked back to excessive clear cut logging in the Boundary timber supply area. Residents of Grand Forks launched a lawsuit against B.C.’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources and several logging companies in September 2020 over damages caused by the flooding. The defendants included Interfor, which operates a mill across the Kettle River from downtown Grand Forks.

According to Peter Waldmann, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, only one of the companies has filed a defence and the case, which is being overseen by Justice Gaul of the Victoria Registry, is waiting for a case conference to be set.

In these times of drought, similar connections are being made by people across the region, including ranchers, biologists and retired forestry workers.

Jamie Haynes, a 70-year-old farmer from Rock Creek who also ranches and runs a small-scale, selective logging company, believes “massive logging” to be one of the biggest issues impacting drought in the region. “The future of our forests is in jeopardy because we’re not managing them properly,” he says. “I know this is off the subject of agriculture, but it’s all connected. It all starts in the watershed.”

Haynes has lived in the region his whole life and now resides on the family land where, in 1907, his grandfather built the existing barn with hand-hewn timbers masterfully erected atop dry-rock masonry. Up until 15 years ago they kept all their cattle on the property but a lowering water table forced them to relocate the herd to lower pastures.

About a decade ago Haynes turned to no-till, regenerative agriculture to help conserve water. This method maintains moisture in the soil because it isn’t being exposed to sun and wind which induces evaporation. He’s also moved to growing more cover crop mixtures that include daikon radishes, triticale, peas and oats. The results have been tangible, especially on dry years like this when water retention in the soil is paramount.

According to Ray Hanson, a retired forester from Grand Forks who worked for the Ministry of Forests for 32 years, this simple act of water retention, across all parts of a watershed, holds the key to mitigating both drought and flood.

In an intact watershed, Hanson says, the forest floor is made up of a thick layer of debris called humus which collects over decades or centuries. This layer, along with the root systems of trees and plants, acts like a sponge, soaking up the melting snow before releasing it later, once the initial spring freshet has passed. This not only lessens the effects of spring runoff but also injects a vital source of water to streams and creeks once the heat of summer sets in.

The other piece that intact forests provide is shade, something that plays a big role in how fast snow accumulates and melts. With healthy forests, drastic temperature swings, like the Kettle Basin experienced in June, are mitigated, again helping to slow runoff.

The opposite scenario, where a forest fire or intensive logging has decimated the humus layer, leads to increased flow volatility and rapid erosion. “It’s a cumulative effect,” he says. “If you’ve lost the shade and burnt up or disturbed the humus layer too much then the ability of the topography to manage the water is diminished and that’s basically a lot of what the problem is here in the Kettle River drainage.”

In a report published on the provincial government’s website, Rita Winkler, an adjunct professor in the Department of Forest Resource Management at UBC, states that harvesting with large machinery, including skidders and feller-bunchers, “can compact soil surfaces and cause overland flow,” which can then lead to an “increase in the flashiness of streamflow response and the magnitude of surface erosion.”

The report goes on to note that the “significance of this soil compaction and resulting overland flow depends on the degree of compaction and how much of the watershed area is disturbed.”

When asked about the links between clear cutting and forest hydrology in the Boundary timber supply area, the Ministry of Forests said they were unable to comment due to pending litigation of the class action lawsuit.

Kristina Anderson, who works as the watershed planner for the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, has spent the summer monitoring water levels and temperatures across Kootenay Boundary and compiling weekly drought reports which are made available to residents. What she has been seeing is alarming.

Many creeks and rivers, including the upper West Kettle and Granby River drainages, are breaking new lows and the mean annual discharge — a measurement used to determine the health of fish ecosystems — in most water courses continues to be dangerously low despite recent rain and cooler temperatures.

Anderson says that people are responding well to municipalities and water suppliers requesting a curtailing of water use, something that isn’t always easy given the agricultural nature of the Kettle River watershed.

“We’re also in a high to extreme fire season at the moment and I’m very conscious of that,” Anderson says. “I really want to make sure we message water conservation in line with strong fire smart practices.”

Despite this, on August 30 the provincial government issued water restrictions for the West Kettle River watershed limiting water usage for the irrigation of forage. The bulletin states that provincial staff are “monitoring the situation, as well as the protection orders that are in place, and will continue to work to balance water uses with environmental flow needs.”

This delicate balance between industrial use, human need and ecosystem health is becoming increasingly tenuous. For Michael Zimmer, a fisheries biologist who works for the Okanagan Nation Alliance, the core of the issue lies in the relationship between human settlement and something as fluid and changing as a river and its riparian zones.

“We like the river,” he says. “We like coming to places like this so we can enjoy the aesthetics, we like floating it with our kayaks and our tubes. But the minute it imposes on us, well we’ve gotta engineer something to control it.”

...continued in Part 2