Fish in hot water- Unregulated groundwater extraction in BC threatens salmon survival

Sockeye observed spawning on groundwater upwellings in Adams River © Sean Bennett/DFO
Lately salmon have been observed spawning on groundwater upwellings on BC rivers, as shown in the photo above of the Adams River, one of BC’s most spectacular and prolific salmon streams. The migrating salmon hang upside down as they try to reach the cold groundwater at the base of the streams.
And the water is only going to get hotter in BC, just as it is in the U.S. Research by a team of ecologists and hydrologists documents statistically significant long-term warming in 20 major U.S. streams and rivers. Groundwater’s significance will escalate as climate change impacts grow, because groundwater moderates water temperatures.
As the Watershed Watch Salmon Society has explained in a series of reports, groundwater provides refuges in water otherwise warm enough to kill. Groundwater is the likely reason that many warm BC Interior streams have had healthy fish populations, even though average water temperatures aren’t always cool enough for salmon.
When fish huddle on these upwellings to escape warmer water, it’s clear that groundwater is critically needed. Yet in BC there is a vicious cycle at work right now:  at the same time as salmon rely more on groundwater to help them cope with warmer water, human overuse jeopardizes supplies.
The percentage of observation wells in BC with declining water levels is on the rise: moving up from 14 per cent in 1995-2000 to 35 per cent from 2000-2005. These alarming declines were not due to natural variations in precipitation. In addition to the threat faced by the Adams River, the more surface water and cooling groundwater is taken, the poorer the prospects that the Nicola River will sustain a Chinook run into the future [PDF].
More and more unregulated wells are being drilled around the province, sucking away the cold water influxes into key salmon streams. Unfortunately the most water is drawn from wells when conditions are hot and dry, creeks are at their lowest and fish desperately need the cooling groundwater.
BC’s current licensing system for water applies to surface but not groundwater, causing headaches for fisheries and other resource managers who have few regulatory tools to curtail excessive groundwater extraction. In the majority of cases, no permit is needed to drill a well. The province has had ample warning of the plunder of this buried treasure [PDF].
Back in 1999, the auditor-general of B.C. noted the need for  groundwater management controls. The alarm bells rang again when the same office examined groundwater once more last December. The report said, “Groundwater is often what maintains base flows in rivers and streams during periods of drought, and is critical to fish and wildlife habitat and spawning areas,” and recommended that the Ministry of Environment act quickly to protect groundwater from depletion.”
Help is on the way. BC will soon lose the dubious distinction of being the only place in North America without general groundwater licensing or permitting requirements. The Water Sustainability Act proposes to require a license for large groundwater uses and for new groundwater uses in problem areas.
The current proposal has ministry of environment staff deciding whether an area meets nine criteria to qualify as a chronic problem area eligible for groundwater controls. Many believe a uniform licensing system for groundwater extraction across the province would be simpler and more effective. A province-wide system would also avoid complaints or requests for action from those in areas not designated as priority areas for groundwater protection. For example, oil and gas development in the northeast corner of B.C. is affecting groundwater, yet this area is not proposed as a priority area for regulation.
Yet any system of groundwater licensing would be an improvement over the current free-for-all. BC’s water laws are set to change, and not a moment too soon to keep these fish out of hot water.