Times Colonist E-edition

B.C. rivers on track for driest summer in recorded history


Rivers across almost every region in British Columbia are on track to run at their lowest levels in recorded history, according to the province’s River Forecast Centre.

Dave Campbell, head of the agency, said the record low river levels for this time of year have their roots in three recent phenomena: the lingering effects from a late 2022 drought, a powerful spring heat wave that melted snowpack early, and a persistent lack of rain.

Normally at this time of year, the amount of water held in the province’s snowpack is 26 times higher. And by last week, only five of 99 snow stations still measured any snow at all.

“It’s pretty widespread. All regions are experiencing this,” Campbell said. “The fact that we’re trending at historic low in so many rivers right now, we’re headed to a potential worst-case scenario.”

Campbell said the most affected river systems are the medium-to-small tributaries that rely on snowmelt to see them through the dry summer months.

The North America WaterWatch map codes river flow along a spectrum of high flows, represented in blue, to the lowest flows, shown in shades of orange and red. On Tuesday, most of the B.C.’s rivers were speckled in burnt orange and dark red dots.

Larger rivers fed by lakes or that are dammed tend to be in better shape, said Campbell, because they have managed to hang onto meltwater before it washes downstream.

BC Hydro’s Stephen Watson said the utility’s Vancouver Island reservoirs are receiving about 80 per cent of their normal flow. In the Campbell River watershed, BC Hydro has reduced flow rates two weeks earlier than normal in order to provide enough water for fish living in the river.

“We’ve been capturing that water,” said Watson. “Right now, the Campbell River system, we’re looking at more than having the river flow over the next week.”

BC Hydro spokesperson Susie Rieder described the Vancouver Island reservoirs as moving into “conservation mode.”

Elsewhere in the province, Rieder said high electricity demand in the winter lowered the levels of many reservoirs across the province, but that most have refilled with all the early meltwater. With that winter snow mostly gone, she said water levels will be at the mercy of summer rain.

The three reservoirs Metro Vancouver draws on for its drinking water are also within normal ranges due to their ability to capture any melting snow.

Campbell said the biggest impacts so far can be seen in B.C.’s Peace region, where the largest wildfire in the province’s history continues to burn out of control under level 4 drought conditions.

A spokesperson for the BC Energy Regulator, which manages water to the region’s oil and gas industry, said low flows have prompted it to issue a “water directive” requiring operators to suspend previously approved water diversions from rivers, streams and lakes across a number of tributaries in the Peace River and Liard River watersheds.

“Drought conditions are being monitored in areas the BCER regulates across the province and additional withdrawal suspensions may be rolled out as needed,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Campbell said he and his colleagues at the River Forecast Centre also have broad concern for small- and medium-sized rivers in the Southern Interior, Sunshine Coast and Lower Mainland.

Normally at this time of year, rivers are peaking due to melting snow in the mountains. But Campbell said river levels have already started going down way ahead of schedule. He said he’s never seen anything like it.

“Nearly half of the rivers are sitting at the lowest ever recorded or what we call the fifth percentile — something that would happen once every 20 years.”

Campbell said the conditions are so abnormal that historic comparisons aren’t very helpful. At this point, he said, it’s easier to find a comparison decades into the future.

“This year is much closer to what we’ve been expecting in climate change scenarios in the 2050s and 2080s,” he said.

Campbell said he’s hopeful but not confident that summer rainfall will once again fill rivers to seasonal averages, since July and August tend to be some of the driest months of the year. If not, he said, falling river levels could be devastating for anything living there.

“It’s everywhere,” he said. “We need to get that rain.”






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