B.C., its people and its economy should brace for additional water restrictions as the province faces what could be an unprecedented drought.
This was the over-arching message from Emergency Minister Bowinn Ma as she and other experts updated the public about drought conditions in the province Thursday (July 13).
“We are anticipating a very serious drought season that will require action from everyone,” Ma said. “That likely means every industry, every business, every individual across the province.”
Many communities have already implemented water restrictions and the province will be appealing to communities to escalate their drought response plan and their water restrictions, Ma said, adding that process will start later today.
“We prefer to work with communities to implement those restrictions (and) bring the public along so that they understand why it is that these restrictions are needed. However, at the same time, we are actively looking at possible (provincial) orders for water licensees.”
Connie Chapman, director of the water management branch of the Ministry of Forests, said staff are working with water license holders to seek voluntary reductions.
“If voluntary reductions do not happen, then regulatory action may be required to protect aquatic eco-systems and fisheries populations.”
Oil and gas companies in the northeastern corner of the province having already been facing restrictions on water use. The British Columbia Energy Regulator has been asking oil and gas companies to immediately suspend water diversions in different parts of the region, the latest suspension having occurred on Wednesday (July 12).
Ma said the practical effects of restrictions will differ from community to community, noting that communities 30 minutes apart might be in different drought levels, which makes responding “challenging.” But if local conditions vary, all British Columbians must do their part now by cutting their respective daily water use now by taking shorter showers among other measures because the effects of drought are time-delayed.
“We need people to turn their minds to a conservation mindset,” Ma said.
A survey of the latest drought map, which offers a general picture, underscores Ma’s appeal. Four out of 34 water basins have reached Level 5 on the provincial drought scale, meaning that adverse impacts to socio-economic or ecosystem values are almost certain.
The affected areas include all of Vancouver Island, the Skeena region as well as the northeastern corner. Another 18 basins including the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley and Sunshine Coast are at Level 4 where impacts are likely.
“While it is not uncommon for British Columbians to face droughts, the level and extent that we’re witnessing this early is deeply concerning,” Ma said.
B.C. faces these conditions after the hottest May across B.C. on record, as well as the earliest melt of the mountain snowpack.
Jonathan Boyd, hydrologist with River Forecast Centre, tried to put the current drought conditions into historical context.
“What’s unusual this year, is how early it is and how widespread it is,” Boyd said. “It’s never been like this early,” he added.
While it is difficult to predict what lies ahead, B.C. is currently moving into the driest months of the year, he said. Whether it will be a record-breaking year really depends on events in September and October, he added.
B.C.’s current drought is unfolding against extreme weather events including droughts elsewhere in the world and a growing collection of responses to such events. But if the ministry and its staff are constantly reviewing the experiences and responses of other places around the world, any solution to the current situation will have to be B.C.-specific, Ma said.
“We really have to make sure that what we are doing works for British Columbia and British Columbians given our unique ecosystem, our economy and our people,” Ma said.