By Parker Jefferson
As I may have mentioned before, I go fishing a lot. My most ambitious and exciting annual adventure is a trip to the Dean river on the central coast of BC. Several years ago I was camped about 30 km up the river with four friends. We had chartered a helicopter to get there and set up our camp by the river in a very remote location surrounded by beautiful wilderness and a few fortunately well-fed grizzly bears.
We had rubber rafts to float down the river to the mouth where we were to be picked up in a few weeks. We were fly fishing for summer-run steelhead, a highly prized game fish on one of the most famous fly-fishing rivers in the world. We had done this trip several times before and had our routines all worked out. One of those routines involved water for our camp. We had to use the river water and we had some filters and chemicals we used to kill all the bugs in it and make it safe for drinking.
The Dean drains a large part of Tweedsmuir Park, and that area was ground zero for the climate change induced pine beetle infestation that devastated our interior forests. The trees in many of the tributaries of the Dean have been completely wiped out by the beetles and subsequent fires. This leads to erosion of the soils in the drainage and whenever it rains the river quickly turns from a lovely green to the colour of coffee with lots of cream in it. One morning we emerged from our tents after a rainy night to find we were camped on a river of flowing coffee. There was no point in fishing in that so we set about our morning routine and needed some water for coffee. We soon found or filters were useless, as they clogged too quickly and so we just figured we would double the chemicals we normally used and we would be fine. Later that day we all started feeling a bit queasy so we decided we had better start boiling our water, which we had hesitated to take on earlier due to limited camp fuel. By evening we were all sick to varying degrees and one of us had developed a fever. Fortunately we all eventually recovered and were able to resume our enjoyment of the trip, but it could have been much more serious, this was before the days of satellite phones and we had no communication with the outside world.
That was my first lesson on the effects of turbidity on water quality. As it turns out, the fine particles of silt that make water turbid are like little submersible vehicles for bugs taking a joy ride down the river. The number of bacteria in water goes up exponentially with increasing turbidity. Controlling turbidity and preventing contaminants from entering the river during rain events is crucial to maintaining water quality.
The results of some very extensive water quality tests done last fall in our watershed were released this week and as expected, turbidity plays an important part in the results. These tests were done when the fall rains finally came after our prolonged drought last year. This was a good time take the samples as all of the feeder streams and ditches draining into our river were full and flowing quickly. The samples were gathered once a week for five weeks by volunteers from our community. The samples were tested and the data was produced by the BC Ministry of Environment.
The results show that the Cowichan river is doing very well. The turbidity and associated bacteriological contamination remained within acceptable limits. This is another quantifiable positive result of the Stoltz Bluffs remediation work done in 2006. Before that work was done the bluffs were pumping tons of fine sediment and it’s joy riding bug passengers into our river and the results would have been much different. It also indicates our Joint Utility Board sewage treatment plant is working well.
The Koksilah river and Cowichan Bay, however, did not fare as well. The turbidity in the lower Koksilah was above acceptable limits on several occasions. Some of the feeder creeks in the Bright Angel Park area were well above acceptable limits. E Coli contamination was the item of most concern as it can affect human health. In relative terms, where about 80 e. coli per 100 ml is an acceptable limit for swimming and 380 is acceptable for other water sports like paddling a canoe, some of the feeder creeks had values of 90,000. The Koksilah itself was often in the range from 100 to 350 in the lower reaches and some of the readings were in the thousands.
In Cowichan Bay, it was a similar story. Many of the feeder creeks draining directly into the bay had extraordinarily high turbidity and e. coli values. Readings in the bay itself were often well above acceptable limits.
DNA testing is being done on the samples with the highest e.coli readings and preliminary results indicate mostly cow feces are responsilble for the e coli. There were indicators of human waste in some of the samples taken in the bay near the marina.
The Vancouver Island Health Authority has been made aware of these findings and is working on establishing long term sampling sites in the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers and at beach sites in Cowichan Bay. MOE will be doing additional sampling and is continuing with testing the samples from last fall for DNA and metals.
It is the goal of our stewardship community, including Cowichan Tribes, to be able to harvest shellfish in Cowichan Bay. These results show that we have a long way to go to achieve that objective. Our stewardship community will continue to push for more local control of our watershed, which includes not only water levels and flow management but also contamination levels in our water. Clean, plentiful water is far too important to be left to cumbersome bureaucratic policies being administered by people not in our community and not accountable to local authorities.
We will be making local control of our water resources an election issue in the coming provincial election and we will be asking all candidates to support transfer of control of our water to local authorities if they want our votes. We hope everyone will join us in this initiative.