With thousands of lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater sources, the majority of Canadians don’t give water a second thought.
Recently, I was reminded of just how precious a resource water is. A water main broke in my community and suddenly homes, businesses and even local schools couldn’t use the water from the tap for several days. People improvised: some bought large commercial water jugs, others used backcountry filtration systems. We kept a large pot on the stove, either boiling to kill the germs or cooling down so we could fill up whatever jugs we had.
The incident was a reminder of how we all should understand our water, and not just from tap to toilet, but a more holistic picture of our water within the larger environment. After all, the more we understand something, the better we are able to protect it for future generations. Water is essential to our entire ecosystem. And to understand our water, we need an understanding of our watersheds.
So, just what is a watershed? I’m glad you asked.
A watershed is an area of land defined by ridges or landforms that funnel water downwards into streams, creeks, and eventually larger rivers. Every drop of water that falls as snow or rain, or condenses from fog or mist inside these boundaries, supports our ecosystems. Watersheds can be tiny, like a small gulley near your home, or large, like the entire Columbia River Basin. Watersheds may contain lakes, wetlands, and other water features, and the quality of water coming out the bottom is affected by all the natural and human caused changes within that watershed.
Unfortunately, watersheds are feeling the effects of climate change as well as decades of industrial activity and resource extraction from mining and forestry. In September, reports of drought and water scarcity swept the province. In November 2021, BC’s most populous centre was left stranded after an historic atmospheric river triggered mudslides, swept away highways, destroyed homes and killed five people. Seasons of too much water, and too little, are increasing, frequency, with alarming results.
What’s causing such dramatic disruptions in our watersheds?
The main villain in almost every modern story is the bad guy in this one too: climate change. Climate change is affecting watersheds thanks to warmer, wetter winters, and hotter, drier summers. These increasingly-volatile swings are only predicted to increase as climate change worsens. And unfortunately, many of our ecosystems are already compromised from decades in which we’ve extracted more than we’ve replenished.
Drier summers lead to drought conditions, which stress wildlife and native plant communities. Drier forests can lead to increased forest fires. Warmer winters also mean overwintering insects like beetles kill off more trees, while wood ticks cause more disease in ungulates, and humans. Increased water temperatures cause problems such as bacteria growth and reduced quality of habitat for fish such as trout, who thrive in cold water, while drier years lead to reduced flow for plant and animal communities.
Ecosystems are rapidly changing, as cold-adapted plants and animals migrate upslope, while heat and drought-resistant vegetation and animal communities move into warmer, dryer valleys. Heat waves hurt people too; the World Health Organization estimated in 2022 at least 15,000 people died as a direct result of heat waves.
BC committed funding to restore watersheds earlier in 2022, noting the effects climate change has had on our province and the need to support climate resiliency.
The Columbia Basin watershed
There are 12 major watershed basins in BC. Our corner of the province is in the 671,200 km squared Columbia Basin watershed. The headwaters begin a humble journey in Canal Flats, gathering water as the river makes its way through the Columbia wetlands, along a winding international journey, eventually pouring out into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon.
Grassroots organizations, Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, government agencies and community water systems all play a role in Columbia Basin watershed health. Living Lakes Canada hosts a useful online tool to access all relevant data in one location: the Columbia Basin Water Hub. On this site, you’ll find water data, information and research from across the Columbia Basin.
At Wildsight, we work to educate youth about water health, so they can grow to love and protect it, such as through Know Your Watershed. This Columbia Basin Trust program, administered and operated by Wildsight, helps more than 1,000 high school students across the Columbia Basin every year to understand that clean, fresh water is a shared resource as they learn about their local watersheds — what they are, how they work, and why we should care.
Each summer, we take up to 16 high school students on a two-week journey through the upper Columbia River watershed in the Columbia River Field School. Building on that, we created Teach the Columbia: a set of lessons that take our field school learning into the classroom. Teach the Columbia helps learners appreciate the geography, history, ecology, economy and culture of the Basin while engaging with current processes that will shape its future, like the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty and Indigenous-led salmon reintroduction.
This knowledge isn’t just for students. Last summer, we explored Teach the Columbia curriculum through a field course for educators. The success of that inaugural course has led us to consider further field course options for 2023.
We are also exploring other adult programming options. If this is something you’re interested in, or have programs you’d sign up for yourself, let us know!
This year, we invite you to spend time getting to know your watershed, studying watershed health, and growing in your understanding of the Columbia River Basin. Knowledge empowers us all.