The Salmon River is in trouble.
The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Resource Operations (FLNRO) says the river is at a drought 3 level, with four being the worst possible rating.
Residents, farmers, industry and municipalities are being asked to reduce water consumption by 30 per cent, not just for humans but for the other species that call the river home.
Low water levels can impede the passage of salmon, increase susceptibility to disease, or cause stranding or death due to low oxygen levels and high water temperatures.
Valerie Cameron, FLNRO’s manager of water stewardship, says the Salmon River used to be considered as part of the much larger Thompson watershed. That changed in 2015 when the province deemed the river to be a separate watershed unit because of continuing challenges.
“This river has always been a problem; it is a very long system in a valley that has a lot of gravel,” she says, noting there are times when the water level drops and flow is reduced to the porous rock below the surface. “If it’s flowing underground, it’s of no use to the fish.”
Another factor is a lot of agricultural activity along the river, with users drawing not only from the surface water, but from wells too.
“The agricultural community is by far the biggest user,” says Cameron. “Irrigation takes the lion’s share.”
Cameron says part of the challenge in managing the river is that the ministry only has information on those who take water from streams, not on those who draw from wells.
Under old regulations, the province had no ability to regulate groundwater.
That changed with the Water Sustainability Act, which came into force on Feb. 29, 2016.
“We are the last place in North America to regulate groundwater,” says Cameron, noting that other than small, domestic water users, agricultural, industrial and water system owners in the watershed are required to have a water licence whether they are drawing from a watercourse or a well.
While current users will still pay annual rental costs, they will be allowed to acquire their licences without having to pay an application fee during the three-year grace period which ends in February 2019.
Those who do not apply for a licence before the deadline will not only be breaking the law, they will have no rights to the water and will have to pay the application fee. And their application will be put at the end of the queue.
Cameron says although not required by law, domestic water users benefit by having a licence because it provides them with rights to the water.
For example, without a licence, they have no recourse if their well runs dry due to the actions of other users.
“We strongly encourage people to get their licences,” says Cameron, who notes response across the province has been somewhat slow.
Retired dairy farmer John McLeod says he remembers dry years but nothing as dry as this, when even the weeds in his yard are dying.
“We do need more regulation and I know that people are not big fans of regulation, but the human species left to itself has not been known to be responsible,” he says, noting he grew hay and corn to feed his cows and knows farming is a very difficult industry to be in and first and foremost, farmers are thinking about mortgages and growing good crops. “Are we worried about salmon in the river or about bales of hay and tons of corn? Therein lies the decision everyone has to make; we can irrigate until we think we have irrigated enough, the river drops and chinook can’t make their way into the river. There ends the salmon run.”
McLeod says while farmers are the biggest water users, they are not the sole concern. He points to years of logging that has reduced the ability of the land to retain water and increased phosphorous in the waterways.
“It’s a very serious problem and I think licensing is a very good first step, but there has to be education around this,” he says, noting ministries of agriculture, forestry and education need to work together to produce information that deals with cumulative effects.