Is There An Even Worse Drought In The Making?

Hands up, who would rather be living on the east coast this winter rather than in the amazing Cowichan Valley?  Not seeing any hands.  What an amazing winter we are having.  Spring has started already with flowering trees in Duncan and even flowering Indian Plum in my yard in the much colder Sahtlam area.

Six years ago at this time we had 3 feet of snow in our yard that did not melt until April.  This year I have not even had to drag the snow blower out of storage.  It is hard not to be smug with my eastern-based Facebook friends who can only dream about going out fishing.  The record-breaking cold air from Russia has them (not) reeling.  I do not hesitate to post lovely pictures of steelhead and trout we are catching here in the Cowichan as we bask in the California-like days of our current winter.  As lovely as this weather is, it does come with a price we will likely have to pay this summer.

I have been reading several climate blogs lately and there seems to be a theory about what is going on here.  The arctic is warming faster than the sub-arctic areas in the north.  This is likely caused by the effects of warming and melting ice that exposes more bare earth, the bare earth then absorbs more heat from the sun than the snow and ice that was there, causing a feedback loop that increases the warming effects.  This reduced temperature differential between arctic and sub-arctic areas has the effect of slowing down the jet stream, the river of air that moves our weather around North America.

This slower jet stream tends to meander and stall, causing prolonged weather events, so warm or cold spells last longer and when rainstorms stall it can lead to flooding like we saw in Calgary 2013.  The “Polar Vortex” experienced in the east last winter and this year’s “Siberian Express” are related to this stalling jet stream and many scientists believe long cold spells will be more frequent for eastern North America in winter.

The good news for us is that the same conditions that bring the cold to the east are expected to keep us in the west warm and it looks like this will be the new normal as we study the rapidly increasing effects of climate change.  The problem for us here in the Cowichan is that we will likely have less snow pack in the mountains of our watershed, as is certainly the case this year.

Last weekend we took a boat trip up the lake to fish the Nixon creek estuary.  When we were there we could see across the lake to Heather Mountain.  I told my friend that a few years ago I hiked up to a snow course on Heather Mountain where we measured several feet of snow in April.  We could see the area where the snow course is located and there was no snow at all visible there or anywhere else.  There is an automated snow measuring system in the Nanaimo river drainage that can be accessed online and it shows no snow when there should be about 3 feet at this time of year.  The snow pack usually peaks in April, so we could still see some snow, but it does not look good.

We are going to need a very wet spring and summer to avoid another serious lack of water in the river again this fall.  There has been some slow progress on increasing our summer water storage capacity and the CVRD has a list of proposals under consideration.  It is expected that a course of action will be selected soon and engineering plans with cost estimates will follow, but obviously not in time for this summer. If we’re not ready for the next one, though, we will have failed badly.

We are still at the mercy of the provincial bureaucrats who are in control of our weir and the inflexible “rule curve” they administer that could force us to dump water out of the lake any time from July to September if we do get a wet spring or summer.  This situation, should it arise, will again fuel protests from our stewardship community, First Nations and community leaders in a repeat of the unheeded 2012 appeals for more emergency water storage.

We are close to finalizing a proposal for local watershed control that could be given to our community under the provisions of the new provincial Water Sustainability Act.  This would see us gain some measure of local control over these issues and a reduced reliance on governance being delivered from provincial authorities located in far away cities.  We will then be able to rationalize our water storage rules and with increased water storage and a new weir we will finally be able to take the steps we need to protect our water supply and create resilience to climate change effects.

Let’s hope that this is the last summer that we have to hope we get some rain in order to keep our river, our economy, and our community healthy.  We need both more water storage and more water conservation, and right away.

At home, see what you can do to use water more efficiently and check out rain barrels if you don’t already have some. Politically, press your local elected officials on getting it done – moving ahead with more regional water storage.

Then perhaps we can enjoy the blue skies without worrying so much.