May 25, 2007 Features & Images » Feature Story

British Columbia's water being carefully monitored 

While much of British Columbia is on flood alert this spring, waiting for this winter’s above-average snowpack to melt, an abundance of water isn’t necessarily part of B.C.’s future.

As Matt Jenkins points out in the accompanying story, Into thin air?, scientists and engineers are scrambling to predict climate change’s impact on future weather patterns — and sometimes they’re all over the map.

In B.C., recent news stories have discussed the possibility of growing citrus fruit in southern parts of the province and grapes as far north as Prince George.

Climatologists cited by Natural Resources Canada predict that winters in coastal British Columbia will be wetter and stormier as a result of climate change. The Suzuki Foundation suggests B.C. may be facing warmer, drier winters with lighter snowpacks.

But melting glaciers provide solid evidence that temperatures are rising. The Wedgemont Glacier, for instance, has retreated hundreds of metres over the last two decades. In Glacier National Park, scientists believe more than 50 per cent of the glacier ice has melted in the last century.

B.C.’s glaciers are important not only as barometers of change but because they store snow like bank accounts store money, releasing water during the summer, when it’s generally dryer. As the Suzuki Foundation states on its website: “Global warming is cashing in on a bank account that has been built over thousands of years but isn’t being replenished.”

Annual water flows from glaciers are gradually diminishing, as less ice remains every year. According to Natural Resources Canada, stream flow in B.C.’s southern Interior has changed over the last 30 years. “Spring runoff starts earlier and autumn rains come later, extending the period of low summer flow. More precipitation falls as rain than as snow in autumn, therefore snowpacks are smaller. Smaller snowpacks result in lower stream flow in summer. These trends will continue if (the) climate continues to warm.”

Changes of this kind to the snowpack and water cycle may disrupt spawning and migration of salmon, which in turn could disrupt the feeding habits of bears and eagles.

And water shortages, or diminished supplies of water, will also affect hydroelectric power production, the source of roughly 90 per cent of B.C.’s electricity.

At the same time, demand for water in B.C. is increasing — through population growth and, in some areas, increased demand for agricultural irrigation.

Still, despite periodic water shortages in the Okanagan and some isolated communities, at the moment British Columbia’s supply of water is the envy of many Western States to the south. And that could one day lead to water exports.

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