The new chair of the Okanagan Basin Water Board is no stranger to water issues.
Sue McKortoff, mayor of Osoyoos, steps up as chair of the water board for 2019, replacing Tracy Gray, who stepped down as a Kelowna city councillor to run for the Conservative Party candidate nomination for the Kelowna-Lake Country federal riding.
McKortoff follows in the path of former Osoyoos mayors Stu Wells and John Slater, who both previously served terms as water board chair.
“I guess it is a kind of rite of passage for the Osoyoos mayor,” she laughed.
McKortoff, who represents the Okanagan-Similkameen Regional District on the water board, said water issues are something she has been involved with in Osoyoos for some 40 years, dating back to the arrival of the invasive milfoil to Okanagan lakes back in the ’70s.
“Back when milfoil was first introduced into Osoyoos Lake, some of us realized what a mess it was going to be,” she recalled.
“Now the only thing we can do is try to manage it as we can never eradicate it, but back then there was about eight or 10 of us who were really keen to do something to raise awareness and try to raise money to buy a milfoil harvester, so we hosted a spaghetti dinner for the community.”
In the years since, McKortoff has been actively involved with both the Osoyoos Lake Water Quality Society and Osoyoos Lake Water Science Forums hosted in 2007, 2011 and 2015.
While milfoil control is one program the water board oversees today, McKortoff said it has also taken on initiatives to broaden awareness of water quality and flood control issues, and lobbied the federal and provincial governments to intensify border inspections for detection of vessels carrying invasive mussels.
“I am happy to work with our board directors and mayors up and down the valley to make the best decisions we can about managing our water and looking after this fabulous resource we have here. Sometimes you think, ‘Boy is this an overwhelming task,’ but we have very qualified and dedicated staff along with our directors working on this,” she said.
As a South Okanagan area resident, McKortoff says she brings a different perspective from other water board directors in the Central and North Okanagan regarding both governance and flooding issues.
She said management of Osoyoos Lake is a shared task between Canada and the U.S. as the lake crosses the international border and dams impact the south end of the lake system in both Orville, Wash., and Penticton.
“Whether it rains or snows further up the valley, it eventually all ends up in the same place at our end,” she noted. “We had our flooding issues this spring and we had a public meeting where people were asking why they couldn’t just hold back more water in Okanagan Lake from being released through the Penticton dam.
“Unfortunately, we learned how our flooding issues we far more complicated than that, that even if we held water back, the high groundwater was feeding into the streams and causing flooding issues for us as well. That’s why it is important for all of us in the valley to work together to share the best practices for water management on behalf of the entire Okanagan.
“We are all partners in this and we need to talk about these issues and bring a strong voice forward to make sure the federal and provincial governments take us seriously.”