Water levels in the Koksilah River dropped to a critical point last summer. (Citizen file)

Water levels in the Koksilah River dropped to a critical point last summer. (Citizen file)

Guest column: The Koksilah River is a canary in the coal mine

River flows dropped so low officials preparing to issue Critical Environmental Flow Protection Order

By Tanis Gower

World Rivers Day was last Sunday. It’s celebrated in 60 countries around the world as a reminder of all that our rivers give us, and that they need our care, too. It’s a timely reminder after the summer Vancouver Island just had.

The Koksilah is a beautiful salmon river that runs through forests and supplies homes and farms south of Duncan. For the second summer in a row, river flows dropped so low that provincial officials were preparing to issue a Critical Environmental Flow Protection Order. This means that there was so little water, aquatic life would likely perish if flows dropped any further. Under an order like this, water users would be forced to scale back their use, depending on the seniority of their water rights. Since this would cause hardship for all involved, provincial officials were working with the community to promote voluntary water conservation. In 2017 and 2018, these voluntary measures were enough to prevent an order being issued.

The extreme low flows in the Koksilah aren’t the fault of any individual water user. Rather, they are the result of a system that has allowed water extraction with too few limits, on a river that already has low flows in the summer. Provincial staff recommended that surface water licenses stop being issued for property owners in the watershed in 1980, when it became clear that low flows were endangering salmon. Like other places in B.C. and further afield (think California), the lack of surface water transferred demand to the more reliable and available water that can be had from wells. Until 2016, just about anyone could drill a well on their property and take as much water as they liked — even if the aquifer that well drew from was connected to the river.

A study recently done for Watershed Watch Salmon Society estimates that 72 per cent of the water used in the Koksilah watershed is from wells. Efforts to protect the river from too much surface water extraction have been eroded by a lack of limits on groundwater use, and the Koksilah continues to be vulnerable. This has resulted in ongoing problems for the river, as well as challenges for the province. When summer conditions become too hot and dry, as they have for the past two years, provincial officials must work with users to support water conservation. If conservation isn’t enough, provincial officials must engage in a time consuming process to prepare the emergency measures that might be needed to prevent the Koksilah from drying up.

Existing groundwater users have until March 2019 to register their wells. This is an important step in recognizing the connection between surface and groundwater in B.C. But it is also a very interesting time for water users and provincial officials alike; many of these groundwater users have a common-law right to the water they’ve been using, and will be granted a license that recognizes it, regardless of the impact groundwater extraction may be having on a river.

Groups like Watershed Watch Salmon Society are asking: What will the province do, when issuing licences for existing groundwater uses on a river that is clearly oversubscribed? After all, it’s only fair to allow people to keep using the water that they rely on, and that they have been legally using until now.

One measure is clear: new groundwater licences for existing users must have clear conditions attached, so that water managers can legally require increased conservation measures during dry years.

Thankfully, for all who rely on the Koksilah and its connected underground aquifers, voluntary conservation was enough to get through the droughts of 2017 and 2018. It’s a safe guess that this situation will happen again, since this beautiful river is an unfortunate poster child for B.C.’s water scarcity challenges. May those in charge succeed in the fine balancing act of acknowledging existing water users while keeping this river flowing.

Tanis Gower has been working to restore aquatic ecosystems and advocate for good water policies for the past 20 years. She is a policy advisor to Watershed Watch Salmon Society, and also works as a professional biologist in the Comox Valley.