Land Use in the Nechako Valley
The Vanderhoof area has seen farming and cattle ranching activity starting with the pioneers of the early 20th century. By the early 1930s there were scattered farms throughout the Nechako Valley and although the majority of them were subsistence homesteads, they were the forerunners of the development of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) that was opened up by the provincial government in the early 1970s (as part of the Vanderhoof Crown Land Plan).
Many of the problems and challenges within the watershed and streams that flow through the Nechako Valley can be traced back to the policies of that era. The strategy put forward by the government of the day required landowners to cultivate 80% of the arable land over a 20 year period in order to receive title to the land. In most cases this resulted in land clearing that went up to and in some cases through the streams and wetlands that made up the parcels of land in the ALR.
Today, the Nechako Valley is the second largest contiguous agricultural belt in the province and is considered a future economic driver for the region. The long term sustainable existence of the agricultural industry within the Nechako watershed is dependent upon protecting the resource base (soil health, water quantity and quality) and general range ecosystem sustainability.
We believe that by bringing water stewardship practices to the forefront of the agricultural producers’ agenda we create future opportunities to market our region as preferential and sustainable, both of which are important identifiers to the consumer of the future.
This chart provides an overview of the gross production of the agricultural community as published in 2006 by the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN). These statistics cover the whole of the region as represented by the RDBN, but considering the Vanderhoof area is the largest contributor by area to these statistics we feel that the numbers accurately represent the area we are proposing to work in. The numbers speak for themselves and clearly demonstrate the value of the agricultural community to the region.
Riparian Zones - Ecological Services and Carbon Off Sets
One of the many challenges to be undertaken by NEWSS will be the restoration of the riparian zone of streams within the Nechako watershed. Land clearing and development in the 1900s most often included clearing right to the stream bank, which over time has lead to habitat degradation and poor water quality. To be able to restore riparian zones on private lands, landowners will have to ‘give back’ land currently used for farm production.
Our experiences with the Murray Creek Rehabilitation Project lead us to explore opportunities to compensate for the loss of productivity that farmers face when their land is dedicated solely to riparian restoration. The Murray Creek Rehabilitation Project already has one landowner that is working with individuals exploring how this could work. This is part of a provincial move to investigate Ecological Services as one of the options that may be a solution. There are many carbon off-set programs currently available, and the Murray Creek Rehabilitation Project had carbon hunters exploring opportunities. It appears that a program could be developed that provides added value and income to the agricultural community. This opportunity falls within part of our vision whereby we serve as a vehicle for the delivery of incentives and investments into the Nechako watershed.
For early settlers and land developers, fording streams was a challenge. The early strategy of horse and wagon fording soon led to the need for bridges by the 1950. The first wooden bridges did not stand the test of time and were soon replaced with creosote structures. By the 1970s creosote bridges lost favor because of the leaching entering into the streams and waterways. Thus the majority of these bridges were replaced with metal and wooden culverts. At the time, and until very recently, the size, placement and type of culvert did not meet the fisheries or water flow needs of the individual stream, causing either barriers for fish passage, erosion of land and roads, and changes to the structure and shape of the stream. Many older culverts now are in disrepair and continue to cause risk to land and fisheries values. Current regulations for provincial roads require that culverts be installed to handle 100 year flow levels and allow fish passage.
Culverts on private land, on the other hand, are not regulated. There is a lot of evidence in the Nechako Valley of multiple attempts to secure crossings on private land that have failed and in some cases created larger problems.
As part of the Murray Creek Rehabilitation Project we conducted a culvert assessment within the Murray Creek watershed. Of the 21 culverts measured; 7 sites were ranked as high replacement priority and 7 as medium to high replacement priority, in total accounting for 66% of the crossings within the watershed. Extrapolating that figure to the entire Nechako watershed presents us with the potential situation that the majority of stream crossings on private land are at high risk, and therefore a great opportunity for NEWSS to facilitate crossings improvements through the development of watershed plans.
Groundwater & Water Security
Water security in the Nechako Valley is an important topic, and one NEWSS is actively involved in. Understanding groundwater and its value to water security is something that will need to be explored thoroughly to help improve watershed health within the Nechako watershed.
A round table discussion ensued in November of 2010 at the request of the NEWSS that centered on the theme “What would an Aquifer Study in the Nechako Plateau entail?” The meeting included representatives from NEWSS, hydrogeologists and hydrologists from the Northern Health Authority, UNBC, Simon Fraser University, the Province of British Columbia and industry representatives that operate in the Nechako Plateau. The figure above shows a mindmap created to capture and organize multitude of topics and information exchanged during this round table session. Some of the background knowledge presented on the area included these facts:
- The majority of people in the Nechako Plateau rely on water from wells for most uses (domestic, industrial, stock watering, etc).
- The District of Vanderhoof relies on water from an artesian groundwater source.
- There is only one provincial monitoring well in the region and it has an incomplete data record.
- Of the 4210 km² of watersheds identified as the initial priority of the NEWSS for restoration works, the underlying aquifers have been identified and mapped for approximately a quarter of that area, but the boundaries of many of the aquifers remain undetermined.
- The degree of interaction of groundwater and surface water is completely unknown.
The meeting highlighted that it is difficult to have an informed conversation about groundwater in the region because very little public information is being collected and even less has been done to understand groundwater outside of drilling water wells. What we acknowledge though, is that:
- there is great value in understanding how groundwater flows through the region,
- most of our infrastructure has been constructed to access water from aquifers,
- activities on the surface have a direct impact on both the quality and quantity of water that flows through our region (above and below the surface), and
- we do not know how sustainable current and future uses of water are, because we have assembled very little of the available information.
Although the round table discussion was only intended to be an initial discussion to explore an idea, the following “next steps” are a compilation of recommendations made at the meeting. These next steps were an outcome of a ‘mind mapping’ process shown on page 27:
- Conduct a water well survey across the area of interest. Within the survey, gain information about water chemistry and water quality, accurate location and elevation (meters above sea level) of the water level in the wells, well construction/protection information. Repeat certain aspects of the survey (specifically static water level) in subsequent years to evaluate change over time.
The water well survey is particularly beneficial because it provides an immediate result with benefits to stakeholders as well as providing a fundamental step to improved aquifer characterization and ground water modeling.
Regular measurements of static water level across the region also add resolution to the trends seen from the provincial observation well network.
- Work with the Province to evaluate the Provincial Observation Well Network and identify where additional monitoring wells would be beneficial.
Identify opportunities where existing wells (privately owned) that are no longer used may be instrumented and designated as provincial observation wells.
Information from the observation well network is publicly available and provides real-time information to the public that is readily available via the internet.
- Determine the water budget for the region at different scales (i.e. 3rd order basins such as Murray Creek and one overall budget for the Nechako Plateau and surrounding area.)
A water budget considers what is incoming and outgoing (precipitation, stream flow, groundwater flow), what water is lost to different processes (evaporation, transpiration, interception, ablation). It is essentially a balance sheet for the water that flows through the region. Figure 4 shows an example of a water budget from the State of Kansas in the United States (Sophocleous, 1998, Kansas Geological Survey, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, Bulletin 239).
Review existing climate information and identify if and where data is deficient. Although there is robust information collected for forecasting and forest fire protection, we anticipate that very little information exists that accounts for evaporation and snow ablation across vast areas of cleared land in the Nechako plateau.
Ensure Cooperative learning– as projects and studies are underway, local people are participating and providing services. Results of projects become tangible and people start to see how their land and actions are part of a dynamic system of water flowing through the region.
This list of “next steps” were recommended at the Round Table discussion, and although technical in nature, the results of these “next steps” are the building blocks towards residents having the confidence to know how well their water supply is protected. Similarly the monitoring and information generated by these “next steps” gives people the knowledge to confidently re-shape management of the landscape if desired values are not being realized (i.e. declines in aquifer levels, excessive losses to seasonal run-off, missed opportunities to capture and store moisture within the soil, inadequate maintenance of base-flow and water quality in stream ecosystems, etc). There are explicit opportunities for partnering and leveraging of funds with government, universities, the health authority, non-governmental organizations and funding organizations for every recommendation identified.
Additional to the previous list of “next steps” NEWSS also feels that there is the need for a better understanding of the dynamics of groundwater discharge and recharge in stream-aquifer systems. As identified in the State of Kansas example, quantification of ground-water contributions to stream flow (base flow), definition of minimum stream flow requirements to maintain the capacity of streams to accept discharged contaminants, quantification of riparian vegetation impacts, maintenance of ecosystem functions, and satisfaction of water quality and quantity requirements are subjects of needed research. The relationship between recharge and stream-flow needs to be studied over a range of time scales and water levels to provide an information base for managing the combined resource (surface and ground water) on a long-term basis. High rates of flow and floods, as seen in most of the watersheds identified by NEWSS, has the effect of scouring out stream channels and gradually reducing the permeability of the channel thus altering connectivity of the stream and an aquifer. Effects can be seen in base flow (low flow) contribution, water quality, ability of streams to assimilate nutrients and contaminants as well as ecosystem function.
NEWSS wants to act on the knowledge that the areas surrounding streams have a substantial ground water component. These saturated zones of surface and ground water interaction are connected with the rest of the land base, which is less saturated but continues to have water moving through it at a much slower pace. The things we do to restore a floodplain, stabilize a creek, or remove pollution, directly affect water that is either becoming groundwater or has recently been groundwater and is now part of the aquatic ecosystem. As we unravel how these relationships affect the streams that flow across the Nechako Plateau, this knowledge will inevitably shape how our stream restoration efforts evolve into the future.
Actions taken for the purpose of improving surface water values can lead to rewards in dividends by improving connectivity of water to the rest of the system. By improving our knowledge of how water flows through the entire landbase (below the surface and above), we begin to understand the influence our actions can have, be it through something as simple as improved bank storage that promotes soil moisture for crops and mitigates localized flooding, to influencing upland decisions ranging from manure management, to rural development.
The role of NEWSS is to facilitate the discussion, connect the experts with the challenges and ensure the lessons are shared with everyone. The relationships that NEWSS has formed with the University of Northern British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Province of British Columbia, Northern Health Authority, Fraser Basin Council and collectively through extension, broader watershed networks, is symbiotic. Universities are interested in studying and learning through experience, the province and health authorities are accountable for the health of the population and the land, the Fraser Basin Council and other watershed networks are interested in sharing knowledge and NEWSS is tasked with bringing this effort together and seeing that it makes a positive contribution to present and future residents of the Nechako region.
Water security, in the context of the Nechako Agriculture belt, is the capacity of the people to manage the resource and ultimately, manage themselves. How we manage the land and water directly influences the water security of the region. In a watershed, groundwater and surface water form a single interconnected and mutually dependent resource. Bringing this knowledge by example and through extension to the stakeholders, schools and individuals leads to capacity building.
Sediment Loading and Opportunities for NEWSS
A 1997 article in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science has established that modified river flow and fine sediment load in the Nechako River has led to increased macrophyte (aquatic vegetation) abundance throughout the river bed of the Nechako River (French and Chambers, 1997) . This vegetation changes the nutrient and hydraulic dynamics of the system in the sense that it slows the velocity of water that interfaces with the river bed causing fine sediment to settle out that would otherwise stay entrained in the water column. A more in-depth report commissioned by the Nechako Sturgeon Enhancement Society in 2005 examined the specific reach of the river between the hwy 27 bridge and the Stuart River junction (French 2005). This second report examined nutrient and contaminant levels from sources such as municipal sewage and storm run-off but continued to identify the entrainment of fine sediment as a causal link to the degradation of the Nechako River ecosystem and specifically, White Sturgeon spawning and rearing habitat. Both reports clearly show that modified river flows and a large sediment influx from the Cheslatta fan were the primary drivers of increased macrophyte production on the river bed, however, the second report was careful to include the following statement in the description of the study area:
“Diffuse sediment sources to the Nechako River likely include poorly-functioning road and rail crossings over the mainstem and tributaries, sparsely vegetated industrial and residential properties, and poorly-functioning riparian zones in agricultural sub-basins; however, such sediment sources have yet to be quantified.”
It is important for the NEWSS to understand and identify how stream restoration efforts can lead to incremental improvement throughout the Nechako watershed. The periodic hydraulic energy of water in many of the watersheds identified by the NEWSS is increased somewhat by clearing of forest vegetation (i.e. fields, industrial sites, homesteads, harvesting, etc.). Soil and stream bank erosion has been observed in several locations throughout the Murray Creek watershed and by extension, throughout the suite of watersheds initially identified by NEWSS. It is understood that erosion and sediment transport is a natural part of a healthy stream ecosystem. When the hydraulics are increased and riparian zones are diminished, however, sediment transport may be out of balance and this concern is shared by both the 2005 report and the NEWSS.
The questions remain, how much sediment is being transported out of these smaller watersheds and deposited into the Nechako river, to what extent is it out of balance with the natural system, and if efforts are to be made to restore the sediment balance in these smaller watersheds, can understanding the dynamics of sediment transport and knowing the incremental benefits to the sturgeon recovery initiative assist us in establishing priorities throughout the greater watershed?
These questions and many others are intended to be key topics for the conversation that the NEWSS intends to facilitate over the coming years. We feel that this topic is one of many strategic discussions that exemplifies the collaborative spirit and leveraging potential of many initiatives underway in the Nechako watershed. It is also one more argument that reinforces the need for resilient and healthy watersheds and demonstrates the positive trickle-down effect of repairing and maintaining the quality of our source waters and the land from which they originate.