Though Rivers Day is past, let's celebrate our success

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, Times Colonist, Kelowna Daily Courier, Penticton Herald and Trail Times

British Columbia is often thought of as a province characterized by towering mountains and magnificent ocean views but throughout our history it has been the rivers that have been critically important to our lives. From the First Nations who lived here for millennia to the gold rushes of the 1800s to recreational salmon fishing today, rivers have been central to British Columbians’ lives. That’s why it’s not a coincidence that Rivers Day started in British Columbia in 1980. The last Sunday in September is now recognized as World Rivers Day and there were plenty of events in river communities across the province.

Often, Rivers Day has been a time to reflect on the problems facing rivers and ways to improve stewardship. But going forward, we should take a moment to recognize the many success stories of improved river health from across the province.

The province of BC has a long history of monitoring the quality of the water in our rivers, and has reams of data and countless reports on specific locations across the province over time. BC also developed a Water Quality Index which has now been used by governments and researchers to classify water quality in Canada and around the world. The province also has a more comprehensive set of water quality guidelines than any other province in Canada. Although BC has a wealth of data and research on water quality, this data and research is not easily accessible for the average citizen.

Canadian Environmental indicators- Water reviews and highlights many of the results from numerous BC government water quality studies and finds that there are many major BC rivers that have seen dramatic improvements in water quality over the past 30 years. For example, chloride concentrations in the Fraser River have declined substantially since 1979 due to changes in the bleaching processes used by pulp mills. This is true both at Hope and just downstream of Prince George and Quesnel.

The Okanagan River has experienced declining levels of phosphorus, a past cause of frequent nuisance algal blooms that were bad for the tourism and the recreation sector the region depends on. Indeed, due to investments in sewage treatment and the implementation of fertilizer management plans, phosphorus levels in the Okanagan Basin are back to levels last seen in the early 1900s,  the levels prior to intensive agricultural and urban development.

The Columbia River downstream of Trail has experienced declining levels of fluoride, cadmium, iron, lead, zinc, and barium since 1979. The water quality is considered good for aquatic life and human consumption (with minor treatment), which is impressive considering it’s downstream from a metal smelter, fertilizer plant, and wastewater treatment facility.

Due to the natural composition of soil and rock in BC, concentrations of metals in rivers can exceed BC’s water quality guidelines in times of heavy flow. But according to the BC Ministry of the Environment, these exceedances are likely harmless to humans or wildlife.

Though not a major river, the restoration of the Tsolum River on Vancouver Island is one of the biggest success stories in BC. A community restoration project resulted in the return of fish and bugs to the river 40 years after toxic releases from an abandoned mine virtually destroyed the river’s ecosystem.

So now that Rivers Day is past, let’s not forget our success stories; over the past 30 years we have improved the stewardship and the quality of the water in our rivers across the province. I know I will be celebrating this weekend while I am fishing for Coho salmon in the Fraser.

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