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One of the driest years on the books puts pressure on water supply

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 | 7:30 pm

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A duck cautiously approaches the water near the Kelowna Marina this week. (Photo Joe Fries)

By Kathy Michaels

Rain clouds may loom overhead, but 2010 has been remarkably arid in the Southern Interior.

“From Prince George to the U.S. border (the winter) was the driest on record,” said Doug Lundquist, meteorologist from Environment Canada, adding that the one exception was Penticton, which had 50 per cent more precipitation than normal.

“In Kelowna we had one-third of our normal snowfall but 70 per cent of regular precipitation. It’s been warmer,  so a lot of that precipitation came in as rain rather than snow.”

El Nino helped make the temperatures so mild, leaving Kelowna 1.8 C warmer from December through February — and that’s typical of what happens when it makes an appearance. Now that we’re well into March, conditions aren’t expected to turn around dramatically as spring is considered the Valley’s dry season and that puts a lot of expectation on summer storms.

“May to July is when our next greatest water-fall is,” he said. “It’s dry, so hopefully we will get near-normal or above-normal precipitation, but it’s difficult to forecast.”

While few will complain about pleasant temperatures that marked the early months of this year,  concerns over the low snowpack have poured in for months.

Various irrigation districts have reported lower-than-average accumulations — the Glenmore Ellison Improvement District at 63 per cent of normal and Westbank at 82 per cent of normal — and that’s caused some worry over what’s ahead.

If those low snowpack levels persist, they will likely lead to lower water levels in reservoirs, which will put pressure on residential and agricultural supplies. But what’s been less of a topic of discussion is how it will impact rivers and streams and their delicate ecosystems.

That was until this week when the Rivers Institute at B.C. Institute of Technology released its BC’s Most Endangered Rivers List for 2010. Through a list of 10 rivers near extinction, the topic of low snowpack and how it will impact water flows, was given a second look.

During the summer, low flows result in higher water temperatures and that makes life tougher for the fish and other creatures that live in those bodies of water, said Mark Angelo, the chair of the Rivers Institute at the B.C. Institute of Technology.

Of specific concern to the Okanagan is the Kettle Valley River, which has been named 2010’s most endangered river.

“The Kettle is a wonderful feature in B.C., but it’s confronted by a list of threats,” he said. “We have seen, in the last few years, record low flows. So low at times that locals couldn’t inner tube down the river.”

Those concerns rose to the forefront when the snowpack was more robust, and Angelo pointed out that this year’s diminished supply will likely result in even more dire conditions that could seriously impact the creatures that rely on the body of water.

While less precipitation isn’t something that humans can control, Angelo said that it’s time for governments to take charge of the way our rivers, streams and bodies of water are cared for.

“One key point is that there is a need for water management plan,” he said. “What’s happening on the Kettle highlights the importance of developing a new Water Act in B.C.”

For more information on the list and how it will impact the area, read Friday morning’s full report.

kathy@kelowna.com

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