Fish out of water: Time for stronger rules to protect environmental flows

Creeks and rivers outside Merritt, BC were running low. Spawning kokanee salmon were stuck, unable to complete their final swim home up the Nicola River. Though the Ministry of the Environment’s staff had convinced many ranchers to voluntarily reduce their water intake, and forgo their entitlements under their water licences, there was still one rancher who wouldn’t agree.  So the inspector made the order. The rancher’s water was cut off.
And the next day the fish swam by. Here’s a picture of those fish:

(c) Al Caverly, Ministry of Environment
But is this the best way to keep water in a river? Having a regulator make individual orders is time-consuming, expensive and overly confrontational.
Wouldn’t it be better to first set aside that part of a river’s flow that nature needs, and then divide up the rest between the other human users? That’s where rules to protect environmental flows come in.
Environmental flows are the quantity, timing and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems (See last week’s webinar by WWF water specialists Mat Lebel and Tony Maas, Addressing Water Needs: The Science).
Environmental flow protection is a growing trend in water law [PDF]. Parched countries like South Africa and Australia have some of the strongest environmental flow laws. Wetter countries like Scotland and New Zealand are working on their rules. Environmental flows are protected across the European Union and across the U.S.
In Canada, though some steps have been taken, no province has yet given environmental flow protection rules the priority they need. The BC government has the opportunity to be the first province to enshrine the scientific understanding of river ecosystem functions in law, and pass rules to protect those functions, as promised in its 2008 Living Water Smart strategy.
If these flows aren’t better protected, there’s a risk that galloping human consumption will imperil freshwater ecosystems in BC. A scarily large proportion – 37 percent [PDF] – of freshwater fish in BC are already classified as endangered.
Altered river flows threaten, for example, the red-listed white sturgeon found only in BC’s Fraser and Columbia rivers. And low flows will prevent fish like the kokanee from returning to their natal stream to spawn.
There are ways to put a presumptive flow standard into law. Then it can be adapted as need be for an individual river system. BC has great techniques for preparing in depth river plans, thanks to BC Hydro’s pioneering water use planning leadership . However, these planning processes won’t be completed on all of BC’s priority rivers and streams anytime soon due to time and cost constraints, so it’s better to act now to change the law to provide a minimum level of protection that applies across the province.
BC has the opportunity to lead on water law. Strong rules protecting environmental flows is an excellent starting point.