Letter: Nitrate contamination flows into Okanagan watershed

We are sorry that our problem has become a problem for everyone in the Okanagan and beyond.

Open letter to Okanagan Valley mayors and councils:

I am writing today to update you on the recent events associated with the nitrate contamination of the Hullcar Aquifers in the Township of Spallumcheen, which are rapidly becoming an issue that should be of concern to all residents of the Okanagan Valley and south.

The 53 farms (approximately 150 people) on the Steele Springs Waterworks District have been under a water advisory since March 6, 2014 when the nitrate level in the springs coming from Aquifer 103 exceeded 10 ppm, the maximum allowable content (MAC) under the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines.

On July 14 of that year, another 150 people on private wells in the Hullcar Valley were advised by Dr. Trevor Corneil of Interior Health to have their private well water tested at least once per year because of the nitrate contamination.

A Compliance Order was issued by Mike Reiner, senior environmental protection officer, on the HS Jansen and Sons dairy farm on Knob Hill Rd. as the “likely” source of the contamination as they spread thousands of gallons per acre of liquid effluent from their flush barn, which uses water to flush the excrement and urine from the barn, rather than the more common scraper system.

The liquid effluent is held in a lagoon, the solids removed and the remainder sprayed on the farm fields behind a tractor with an umbilical cord attached to nearby underground piping.  Reiner pinpointed the “field of concern” as the location of the problem, a 220-acre field adjacent to and over top of Steele Springs, the only significant natural outlet for the aquifer.

Since then, trustees of Steele Springs, led by chairman Dr. Brian Upper, have attempted to have the Ministry of Environment enforce the Agricultural Waste Control Regulations, with little success. So in February of this year, the Save Hullcar Aquifer Team (SHAT) through the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, filed a request with Interior Health for a Hazard Abatement and Prevention Order under the Drinking Water Protection Act.

The Save Hullcar Aquifer Team is a group of local citizens, Including Hullcar private well owners, members of the Splatsin Nation, which has two reserves in the valley with more than 50 members served by Private wells. In filing the request, SHAT received letters of support from Steele Springs, the Township of Spallumcheen, City of Armstrong, Shuswap Environmental Action Society, B.C. Ground Water Association, Water Suppliers Association of B.C., Small Water Users of B.C. and other water groups.

The goal of SHAT is to stop the contamination of the aquifer permanently and start the process of remediation, so the aquifer can once again be used as safe drinking water. Interior Health is working with Steele Springs to find another water source, with no luck so far. But there is no other source available to the private well owners in the Hullcar Valley.

Shortly after the SHAT request for drinking water protection was filed on Feb. 1, 2016, Interior Health created a four-person team to assess the merits of the request. At about the same time, the provincial government created the Hullcar Aquifer Inter-Ministry Working Group to address the issue of the contamination of the aquifers.

The Working group includes staff from the ministries of agriculture, health, environment and forests, lands and natural resource operation. They are led by Christa Zacharias-Homer, deputy director, Regional Operations Branch, Ministry of Environment.

Since the Working Group was formed they have held meetings with SHAT, Steele Springs, Spall council representatives and Chief Kukpi7 Wayne Christian of the Splatsin Nation, as well as local farmers and the public. They have decided they can’t be absolutely certain of the cause of the contamination, so in May issued pollution abatement orders to some 11 farms, including the Jansens. Their order cancelled the previous Compliance Order.

Subsequently, several of the orders have been rescinded, for a variety of reasons, but several remain.

The Working Group is also proposing creation of an Area-Based Management Plan, and doing fall and spring soil testing on many farms to determine the source or sources of the nitrates. As a result of this effort, our request for drinking water protection is in limbo. The decision is up to Medical Health Officer Dr. Kamran Golmohammadi, who has stated several times he doesn’t have enough evidence to issue a Hazard Abatement and Protection Order, and will await the results of the testing done by the Working Group before making his decision.

And therein lies the heart of the problem. Some 12 of the 53 farms on Steele Springs have water treatment. The rest have to buy their water on a daily or weekly basis, and there are a number who can’t afford treatment or bottled water, so have no choice but to drink the contaminated water from their taps, risking their health every day.

The private well owners of Hullcar Valley have to live with the uncertainty of their wells becoming contaminated, and in the past year, though the numbers are still low, the nitrate levels in some of their wells have doubled.  Some are attempting to sell their farms and move, but the water situation has reduced property values.

Members of the Splatsin Nation, under federal jurisdiction, were never notified by provincial authorities of the danger to their health, and came to SHAT to find out what they were facing. They do not have the option of selling their land and moving to where drinking water is safe. As Splatsin Councilor George William said at a recent meeting with IHA, “We used to be able to drink from any stream in the valley, and now we are afraid to drink what is coming out of our taps.” One of their wells tested at 21 ppm.

But sadly, it is not just our problem in the Hullcar Valley and Spallumcheen. Earlier this year Dr. Upper of Steele Springs determined that the overflow from the springs, which travels down to Deep Creek, Otter Lake and into Okanagan Lake, out of Hullcar Aquifer #103 “ …presently contributes a minimum of 43.8 kilograms (96 lb.) of nitrate every day of the year, to Deep Creek, an important tributary of  Okanagan Lake.”

As of July 31 this year, that will have been 878 days since the Ministry of Environment issued the Compliance Order for a total of 84,288 lb., or 38.23 metric tons of nitrates going into the Okanagan Lake drainage system. The Hullcar Aquifers are the headwaters of that system. The water coming into the Hullcar Valley is pristine, but it doesn’t stay that way for long.

Each month that nothing is done to stop the contamination, an additional 2,880 lb. of nitrates is added to the Okanagan watershed, from which thousands of people draw their drinking water. Each year the lake receives another 35,040 lb. of nitrates, or another 15.89 metric tons.

Nitrates are a fertilizer, and in water they cause eutrophication, which is excessive plant growth that in turn removes oxygen from the water, killing fish and other aquatic life, and in sufficient quantities causing algae blooms. Some algae blooms produce toxins that are harmful to people and animals.

To be sure, the nitrates going into Okanagan Lake are diluted by the massive volume of lake water. But the concentrations will be higher in North Arm, and will gradually work their way south. One only has to look at Otter Lake to see the eventual results, water the consistency of pea soup.

The question becomes: Where is the tipping point? How much is too much?

Keep in mind these totals do not include the volumes added to the lake from this same source before March 2014 when the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines were reached and exceeded. Nor does it take into consideration the 7-10 years (or more) it could take to remediate the aquifer if the government were to decide today to grant the moratorium on the field of concern, and ensure the farmer didn’t add that volume of liquid effluent indiscriminately to another field, causing the same problem from a different location.

And these totals are just for nitrates. At a meeting of ministry staff, water users, the farmer and dairy association members on Feb. 26, 2015, among six promises made was one from the farmer to share his soil testing data that led to continued applications of liquid effluent on the field adjacent to the aquifer. But when the Environmental Law Centre asked for that data in late 2015, the MoE refused.

A couple of weeks ago the data was finally released on the orders of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Commissioner.  It turns out that in addition to nitrates, there are elevated levels of phosphorus, potassium, boron and copper in that field, which are soluble in water. Comprehensive water tests have not been done as they are expensive (approx. $1,275 per test)

Last week our MLA Greg Kyllo agreed to ask the government to pay for a comprehensive testing program, which would also test for antibiotics, steroids, pesticides and herbicides such as Roundup, because the farm grows huge fields of GMO corn for sileage.

As a public advocacy group lobbying for clean drinking water for the 350 people using the Hullcar aquifers, the Save Hullcar Aquifer Team, Steele Springs and the Splatsin Nation have never even suggested that the farm be shut down. We have suggested many possible solutions, from switching their flush barn to a scraper barn to a community digester that could be accessed by all farmers with an excess of manure.

That would produce power and dry, sterile bedding for any farm animals.

We are sorry that our problem has become a problem for everyone in the Okanagan and beyond. We tried our best to stop the contamination before it got out of control, but so far have been stymied at every turn. We will keep trying.

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions please don’t hesitate to contact me, and thanks for taking the time to ready my letter.

Al Price, chairman,

Save Hullcar Aquifer Team

BC government Hullcar Aquifer Information

B.C.Hydrologists Call for Government Action on Hullcar Aquifer Pollution, April 24, 2016 Globe and Mail.