New high water marks

Sand bags line Okanagan Lake’s waterfront in Penticton

Listening to the news on the radio in Vancouver last weekend, reports made it sound like the whole valley was a flood zone and that visitors are going to be swept away in the deluge. This is not entirely the case. There are many wineries that I have visited that would really like everyone to know that the wineries in the Okanagan are indeed open for business as usual.

Yes, there is some high water in the Okanagan. Yes, Okanagan Lake appears to continue to be rising and is expected to crest in the middle of June. Yes, the SS Sicamous (the historic paddle wheeler on the beach in Penticton) is actually floating again for the first time since being intentionally beached 30 years ago. Yes, there is a lot of debris in Okanagan Lake because of raging outflows from tributaries. Low-lying farms near the river and tributary streams in Oliver are slowly taking on water and unfortunately will suffer great losses for their tomatoes or peppers. It is not a good situation and it will be a difficult for  many farmers who depend on those crops for income.

But not all of the valley is caught up in it. Life continues here in wine country and for wineries and grape growers, life is pretty much normal. Most vineyards are on elevated land farther away from the lakes and rivers. There are some vineyards located on outflow areas of streams that are normally dry or very low flows most of the year. All wine shops that I have seen are open for visitors and, because of a string of fabulous vintages over the past few seasons, have never had such amazing collection of stellar wines to offer for tastings. Contrary to the doom and gloom of the news reports, wine country is still a great place to visit in 2017.

The wild and natural Similkameen River

The Similkameen River is high as well but is flowing and “behaving” according to one long-time riverfront winery owner. The Similkameen is still essentially a wild river with no flood controls while the Okanagan River below the lake is regulated with flood control dams. The problem is that the flood control gates are apparently open as much as possible.

Here is where water use and climate change in the Okanagan gets troubling. Most water concerns focus on restricting the use of water because it is something that we have so little of for most of the critical times in the summer. But at a seminar held at Okanagan College on March 30, 2015, scientist Scott Smith from the Pacific Agri-Foods Research Centre in Summerland spoke about the changing conditions that climate change will bring to the valley’s whole water basin. The biggest point that I got out of that seminar is not that the changing climate will make things hotter for life in the Okanagan, but that it will fundamentally change the way that water is used by the land itself.

Penticton Creek, earlier in May

It is all about how the land retains water. If there is a lot of vegetation in the mountains (large trees, shrubs, etc.), then the vegetation will act to help the land retain water. Roots will soak up water and make the soil stronger by holding it together. If that vegetation get weakened (through rising average temperatures, forest fires, logging, etc.) then the land’s ability to soak up water is diminished and in the spring, the water will quickly flow down to the lake and out through the water system. Forest fires (of which we’ve had more than a few in the past 20 years) are sudden changes to the landscape and can have profound effects. The Vaseaux Lake debris flow in June 2004 was caused by forest fires the previous year, which were “believed to have been a contributing factor (Forest Practices Board 2005) by changing the water infiltration and run‐off characteristics in the watershed.

If by 2040 (only 22 years from now) the predicted temperatures at the higher elevations (such as the top of Okanagan Mountain Park and many of the other peaks that line the valley) reach similar high temperatures that we now currently experience at lake level, the vegetation on the mountains is going to change and fundamentally reduce the water retaining ability of the mountains in that water basin. The result is probably going to be more of what we are seeing this spring – a big surge of water in a year of only moderate snowfall at best.

As I have been deep in studying the history of the Okanagan, this is not the first time that the Okanagan has ever flooded. This has happened before and the highest water recorded on Okanagan Lake was 343.28 meters in elevation in 1948. The current system of flow controls was designed and constructed by 1958 and yet here we are in 2017 with a lake level that at this time sits at 343.22 meters and appears to be headed towards a new record high water mark. Is that infrastructure going to be able to handle changes in the future?

Like a bottle of wine, this situation will evolve over time. However, it is sometimes difficult to believe that it will get better with age.

Regards from wine country.

~Luke