Column | Conservation Conversation: Iconic rivers need our help to remain mighty

By Jenny Howell, Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society –

Sitting down to write this, I looked at a list of potential topics based on upcoming fall calendar events. Should I pick National Forest Week to focus on? Or maybe World Animal Day, International Habitat Day, or Endangered Species Day? Close to the bottom of the list was BC Rivers Day There it was: water—my subject. It always comes back to water. This ties all the topics together since rivers are an integral part of forests, provide habitat for so many animals, and sadly, many rivers are now considered endangered. This summer of fires has also shown us all the consequences of low snow packs, low rivers, and drought, far too close to home.

Grade 3/4 students from Peta-Sue Silver’s class at Nesika Elementary at the Williams Lake River conducting water quality testing. Photo by Jenny Howell

Grade 3/4 students from Peta-Sue Silver’s class at Nesika Elementary at the Williams Lake River conducting water quality testing. Photo: Jenny Howell

A quick Google search brings up the world’s most threatened rivers. You’ll know them all; they are rivers of novels, songs, and movies. The Danube, the Nile, the Yangtze, the Rio Grande, the Ganges—a few clicks will give you the rest. These are rivers affected by dams, overfishing, over extraction, invasive species, and of course, climate change. The Colorado isn’t on this top ten list, but the last 160 km have dried up and it very rarely makes it to the ocean anymore; instead there are miles and miles of parched earth where the river used to be.

That’s the rest of the world, though, and we’re here in Canada, where wilderness, space, and water are virtually endless, we often think, somewhat smugly. Those issues are only in crowded industrial nations, and surely not here at home where we celebrate and protect our environment, offering refuge to thousands of tourists looking for that pure, clean wilderness experience they can no longer find at home… right?

My next search took me to a World Wildlife Fund report on threatened Canadian rivers, where the sad reality is our rivers have problems, too. Another long list with the South Saskatchewan at the top, and going on to include the Athabasca, the St. Lawrence, the Grand, the Saint John, the Ottawa River, the Nipigon, the Skeena, the Mackenzie, and the Fraser. As in the rest of the world, they are all are threatened by the same things: expanding industrial, agricultural, and urban use, along with increased dams for hydropower projects, and climate change hovering over everything by affecting and changing general precipitation, snowpack, flooding patterns, and overall hydrology.

The Fraser is our river. That’s where the water running off our lawns, the melting snow on the roads, and the shower water going down our drains will eventually go, assuming they don’t evaporate first. Those river H2Os start on land and head downhill until they eventually become part of the river and then the ocean. They act like little magnets, bonding to most things they come across, which is why water is a universal solvent and – incidentally – why life itself exists as this allows for complex chemical reactions at the cellular level. As H2O molecules travel, bonded to hair products or lawn fertilizer or road salts, these, too, become part of the river.

The Fraser drains a quarter of BC and produces more salmon than any other river on Earth, but it is showing real signs of strain as demands increase both directly on the river and on the tributaries that feed into it. A report for the 2009 Cohen Commission by McDonald Environmental Sciences Ltd found that Fraser River sockeye are exposed to a chemical soup of 200 contaminants, many of which have toxic effects on fish. The commission commented that ‘water quality conditions have degraded over the past two decades’.

While many factors affecting the Fraser are beyond our immediate control, requiring first the will and next the co-ordination between multiple layers of government, there are still ways to help. According to the Rivershed Society of BC, a 2010 survey of BC residents found that 72% strongly supported the protection of nature, wildlife, and species like salmon, even if it slows economic development.

Understanding that a river starts on land is a first step. Thinking about what goes on the ground and down drains is one of the best ways you can personally help protect rivers. Local sewage systems rely on bacterial breakdown before returning treated water to the Fraser, which works well for organic compounds but is not effective for most chemical products. Avoid using these whenever possible and if unavoidable, dispose of appropriately. Pharmaceuticals can (and should) be returned to pharmacies for disposal, and many automotive stores now have recycling programs for coolant, oils, and other automotive fluids. Retailers that sell printer ink and toner cartridges often accept the empty cartridges for recycling. Paint, flammable liquids, pesticides, antifreeze, and gasoline are generally accepted by the major municipal or regional transfer stations (such as those in Prince George and Williams Lake) or they can direct you to the appropriate location. Most municipal and regional websites have downloadable product stewardship guides on their websites; or, you can download the free smartphone app from the Recycling Council of British Columbia called BC Recyclepedia. This app provides recycling options for over 70 materials or products across the province. The easiest approach is always to choose biodegradable products, avoiding chemical cleaners and other products whenever possible.

Blood tests on healthy adults consistently find hundreds of chemicals, pesticides, and pollutants linked to potential health issues such as cancer, nervous system damage, and hormonal defects. We are all part of one big ecosystem, so by keeping our rivers clean we can help keep our bodies clean, too.

For more information on Water Wise or Waste Wise and any of our school and community programs, contact the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society at sustain@ccconserv.org or visit the website at www.cconserv.org.

Jenny worked as a veterinarian for the first half of her career and then took an opportunity to teach kids at Gavin Lake, where she lives with her family. This led to a new career with the Conservation Society, developing and teaching the Water Wise education program.

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