The Upper Fraser East region has just 61 per cent of its typical snowpack, the lowest ever recorded. /BC MINISTRY OF WATER, LAND AND RESOURCE STEWARDSHIP

By Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, RMG

Five months after declaring a local state of emergency, severe drought persists in the Village of McBride. Though the Village’s state of emergency was lowered from a Category 5 to Category 4 in November, the situation is still critical, says Mayor Eugene Runtz.

“We have just a minimal amount of water going over the weir, and so we’ve got enough for now,” Runtz told The Goat. “But we’ve got to do something before summer comes.”

Longstanding concerns about the drought are now being compounded with worries about the remarkably small amount of snow the region has received. According to the Snow Survey and Water Supply Bulletin released on February 1 by the BC Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, the Upper Fraser East region currently has accumulated just 61 per cent of its typical snowpack for this time of year – the lowest amount recorded in 32 years.

According to Dave Campbell, head of the BC River Forecast Centre, it is unlikely that the remaining two or three months of the snow season will compensate for the unusually mild winter the province has had.

“We’ll need something pretty exceptional to steer us away from the current projection of a lower stream flow,” Campbell said. “Now is the time for individuals and groups that rely on this water to think about how they’re going to manage the impact of the lower flow.”

In the meantime, cold and dry winter conditions could continue to put a strain on McBride’s existing water supply: during a recent cold snap, the Village’s reservoir dropped by eight inches, said Runtz.

“At that point, it meant the water that we had coming into our reservoir was no longer being kept up for community needs,” he told The Goat, adding that such a thin margin of error means the Village is “living on the edge.”

That level of precarity poses problems for wildfire season. At the end of January, McBride Fire Chief Courtney Lipke reported that the department does not expect to have to resort to another water source while responding to a house fire. However, Runtz said the Village has received permission to fill its fire trucks with water from Fraser River if its reservoir levels are too low to fill fire hydrants come springtime. Still, pumping from the river is far less convenient than using McBride’s fire hydrants: that’s why the Village is drilling a test well to determine if it is possible to collect groundwater beneath Dominion Creek.

Runtz is cautiously optimistic that the test well will yield positive results. At a special meeting of the McBride council on January 19, a hydrologist hired by the Village said there is a high probability of finding water in the new location. In case the well doesn’t provide enough water, nearby creeks may provide an alternate water source, provided that the provincial government permits the Village to draw water from there.

The Village’s last resort would be to truck in water from Valemount – a solution that would be “extremely expensive,” Runtz said.

“The [provincial] government would cover the trucking costs, but we’re not trying to get into that position,” he explained. “Why should the people of the province pay all the costs for this if we can tap into a couple other sources?”

Climate Change driver

For Kat Harwig, Executive Director of the BC Watershed Security Coalition, the situation in McBride is emblematic of a larger climate-change-driven cycle of drought, wildfires, and expensive stop-gap measures.

“We’re in this reactionary cycle of having to address the climate impacts that we’re feeling in our watersheds,” she said. “We need to stop, take stock, and plan for the challenges that are being presented to us.”

These challenges will be felt by local governments the most as they scramble to cope with the consequences of recurring drought, said Harwig. She emphasized the importance of a collaborative approach between the province, city governments, and Indigenous governments in the effort to achieve water security moving forward. That’s why the Coalition is helping to advise the province to invest more money into helping communities address their water issues, she said.

The provincial government and BC-First Nations Water Table is currently investing in watershed security in the form of a $100 million investment announced last March. While Harwig said this is an encouraging sign that the Eby administration is taking water security seriously, she worries that it won’t be enough to establish long-term, sustainable solutions the province desperately needs.

“With the budget [needed for] fighting forest fires and the housing crisis, there’s many demands being made on the government. But water has to be the common denominator,” Harwig said. “We can’t keep putting off addressing the water security needs of this province.”

An additional $75 million dollars a year, Harwig and the Coalition estimate, could provide sufficient funding to achieve watershed security throughout BC. That money could go towards building more monitoring systems to collect data on water levels, researching more sustainable land use practices, and strengthening relationships between the Province and its municipalities – all of which are crucial to realizing watershed security in BC, according to Harwig.

“We’re all in this together,” Harwig said. “Sooner or later, we’re going to have to address [watershed security] much more aggressively.”

In the meantime, the Village of McBride is embracing the kind of collaborative approach that Harwig advocates for.

“The Province has been really good at every level,” Runtz told The Goat. He said he is grateful to have a strong relationship with Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson: “When I’m done talking to him, I feel like the world is a whole lot better [“¦] We really appreciate having Valemount next door to us.”

The provincial government likewise plans to work with local governments to address the drought projected across the province. A series of in-person and online workshops to help farmers prepare for potential drought this summer is beginning on February 15; the McBride workshop will be held in-person on March 8th.