Saving Okanagan bound sockeye from drought

With the annual Columbia river sockeye run apparently decimated by drought, Okanagan Basin Water Board looks for answers

Responding to the worst drought since 2010, the Okanagan Basin Water Board gathered together a broad section of user groups from one end of the valley to the other to review the current situation and co-ordinate a plan of action.

“Our water is all connected —upstream and downstream,” said Anna Warwick Sears, the executive director of the Okanagan Water Basin Board. “Okanagan utilities may have different sources, but in a real way we’re mutually dependent on each other. We truly are all part of ‘One valley. One water.'”

Keeping with that theme, the Capital News will visit some of the community members and user groups affected by the drought in upcoming weeks.

Sockeye Salmon populations devastated by drought

Lawns turning from green to brown may be one of the most lamented drought issues in suburbia, but as rivers and streams intrinsic to the ecological well-being of the region start to evaporate, other concerns have come to the fore.

Fish, in particular, are susceptible to this year’s hot and dry conditions.

Over 500,000 sockeye salmon entered the mouth of the Columbia river in Portland, Oregon this year for their annual journey. They would have travelled up the Columbia, then into Okanagan River in Washington and entered B.C. through Osoyoos Lake. Around 300,000 were expected to have survived the swim—to be divvied between spawning grounds and fishing supply—  but the actual numbers are dismal.

Currently there are 15,000 sockeye that have made it across the border, and when the migration is complete no more than a maximum of 45,000 are expected to arrive.

The problem is what Okanagan Nation Alliance biologists called a thermal heat barrier, which is knocking the fish out.

ONA biologist Tessa Terbasket said in Washington, on Okanagan river, they’ve recorded water temperatures as high as 26 C to 28 C, which is warmer than body temperature. The norm for the river is usually below 21 C.

“Salmon don’t like that heat,” said Terbasket. “It pretty much halts their migration, and makes them more susceptible to disease.”

Spikes in high temperatures aren’t completely abnormal, and fish have survived worse, but Richard Bussanich, a fellow ONA biologist, explained this year is unique because the low snowpack and early run off have magnified conditions all along the migratory path.

“The whole landscape from here down to Bonneville lock and dam, near the mouth of the Columbia has changed, so these fish are having to migrate under higher than normal temperatures all the way along,” he said.

The devastation to the salmon population—as well as sturgeon and chinook in other areas— is now clear, but the question that lingers is what will happen in the years to come.

Bussanich explained while you can’t control nature, damage that’s been done can be reversed, as has demonstrated by Okanagan Nation Alliance programs.

Their habitat restoration, fish water management tools as well as hatchery and fishery programs brought back salmon populations in a way that once seemed impossible. And they’re not the only ones to have done it.

“This is temperature stuff, and there are examples out there where your can actually reverse this. In Brazil, in Amazonia, there was complete desertification on some 2,000 plus acres, but groups have spent countless dollars reforesting and turning what was once baron into a natural habitat, then gleaning from that,” he said.

“You can reverse this stuff if you have people in different canoes paddling in the same direction.”

Renaturalizing systems that have been stripped as human populations swelled were one of the key messages the ONA team brought to the Okanagan Basin Water Board meeting. There are policies that can make a difference, technical programs that are meaningful and add value across the board and approaches that benefit all.

There was that, and a message of hope for the future.

“What traditional knowledge has shown us through time is that these events happen— they’re not a rarity, they do happen from time to time,” said Bussanich, noting that applying modern scientific approaches with traditional practices could go a long way to riding out rough patches.

Terbasket pointed out we all have a choice in how our future plays out.

“One thing we are seeing is we do have a lot of pull,” she said. “The salmon are super adaptable, but we as Okanagan people are also adaptable and show the same amount of resiliency as the salmon and the water. We need to think proactively how we manage that as a community in the Okanagan.”

For more information about how you can manage water better go to makewaterwork.ca and follow the Capital News for further information.