Trick question: If I asked you where climate was, where would you point? Notice how we tend to think of it as an aboveground phenomenon? A somewhere-over-the-rainbow, atmosphere kind of thing? And, true enough, climate (average weather over time) normally includes temperature, precipitation, humidity, cloudiness and wind. However, since changes in climate invariably lead to changes in water, it’s worth flipping this perspective on its tail this month, to think about what a balmy February might mean for Lake Windermere, and the Columbia Headwaters watershed, from glacier to groundwater.
Snow and glacier melt
Mountain ecosystems are very sensitive to a changing climate, made apparent by the water cycle. The Columbia River Basin and Peace watershed regions have seen decreasing precipitation during winter over the past five decades. Glacier retreat, along with a decline in winter snowfall and snowpack, lead to reduction in streamflow come spring and summer. Changes in streamflow regimes directly affect water supply and quality, hydroelectric power, and fish and aquatic habitat. Of course, less snow also has major implications for winter recreation and tourism activities in the Columbia Valley.
Lake ice and streamflow
One of the first changes I noticed this week was the melting of ice cover on the lake. Studies show a fairly consistent trend in Canada towards earlier lake “ice-free” dates.
In British Columbia alone, the duration of ice cover decreased by up to 48 days in some cases over the period of 1976 to 2005. Decline in overall streamflow mixed with warmer temperatures can render sensitive habitat unsuitable for some aquatic and coldwater fish species, including salmon. A warmer lake can also lead to increased nutrient concentrations, potentially quickening the pace of eutrophication or algal growth.
The rate at which glaciers and deep winter snow packs melt also has an impact on how catchment areas collect and drain water, whether in streams, wetlands or into the ground to replenish aquifers. Fortunately for us, the Columbia Wetlands help to absorb shocks related to changing climates by acting as sponges simultaneously reducing floods and storing water to protect against drought. Another essential source of water storage is found in underground aquifers.
The research community still has a lot to learn about how sensitive groundwater infiltration and refresh rates are to climate change. Hoping to help fill this knowledge gap, Living Lakes Canada (LLC) is a network of watershed stewardship groups that works with local communities to better understand their watersheds. LLC Water Stewardship Co-ordinator Raegan Mallinson says the groundwater monitoring project “creates a connection and understanding of the local hydrological cycle and awareness of watershed issues within communities.”
“It’s pretty simple” says Buzz Harmsworth, a local volunteer with the program, “Water’s around to go around. Depths are pretty steady until spring, when it goes up… the quality is another question.” Local residents like Buzz actively participate in groundwater testing, sometimes even out of their own household well.
Think like a watershed
Not unlike the root system of an ancient cedar, or the veins that circulate nutrients through the human body, rivers and streams are vital anatomy to the landscape. Warmer climates serve as a reminder that to safeguard the stability of the Columbia River, we need to think like a watershed by considering how the river functions as a whole. As the Province rolls out new regulations under the Water Sustainability Act, and looks to us to be the experts on our homewaters, what will you do to protect this beautiful place on the Lake?
Beneath The Surface is based on the principle that there is often more to know than what is visible from the “surface” of an issue. If there is something that concerns you about the lake and you want to get to the “bottom of it”, call Lake Windermere Ambassadors program co-ordinator Megan Peloso at 250-341-6898 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and inspire the next column! Sources used for this week’s column include World Watch Magazine, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and the Ministry of Forests and Range Research Branch.