Drought evident as Fraser riverbed becomes city playground

What is normally the Fraser River riverbed is now a gravel tundra as water flows in both the Nechako and Fraser rivers have decreased dramatically. Bill Phillips photo
What is normally the Fraser River riverbed is now a gravel tundra as water flows in both the Nechako and Fraser rivers have decreased dramatically. Bill Phillips photo

It’s hard to imagine, especially standing underneath it, that during high water in June the Fraser River will, at times, lap at the bottom of the iconic Prince George landmark, CN Rail bridge.

The water levels in the Fraser and Nechako have dropped to levels many are saying they’ve never seen before. The riverbed, turned into a flat gravel bed, has become a great spot to go for hike, walk your dog, or go for a picnic on Goat Island, which currently is not an island.

Fraser River flow levels from August 1-October 30, 2018. River Forecast Centre
Fraser River flow levels at Fort George from August 1-October 30, 2018. River Forecast Centre

The graphs at right show river levels in the Fraser River at Fort George and Shelly from August 1-October 30 this year and last.

Record breaking hot and dry conditions have caused widespread elevation of drought levels. The areas that are most affected are northern B.C., coastal areas and Vancouver Island. The province has set a Level 4 drought rating for the Northeast, Northwest, Stikine and Skeena-Nass areas, as well as all of Vancouver Island.

While the Nechako and the Fraser rivers may be close to being bone dry, the low water has yet to force the city to alter its operations.

Fraser River flow levels from August 1-October 30, 2017. River Forecast Centre
Fraser River flow levels at Fort George from August 1-October 30, 2017. River Forecast Centre

“The city has not been affected as its wells are approximately 100 feet deep,” said Mike Kellett, senior communications officer in an e-mail. “However, residents should at all times be conserving water, and are reminded that the city’s water use restrictions are in effect all year round. The cost of the infrastructure, maintenance, pumping, and treating of the water is the primary reason for the city’s efforts towards water conservation.”

The province has elevated the drought rating to Level 3 for the Lower Columbia, West Kootenay, East Kootenay, Middle Fraser (Cariboo), Nicola, Coldwater River, Salmon River, South Thompson, Skagit and Nechako areas.

The drought rating for the East Peace area is being raised to Level 2.

As drought levels increase, maximum voluntary water conservation is strongly encouraged to maintain water supplies. The province has the ability to regulate water usage, including temporary suspension of water licences or short-term water approvals, should it become necessary, to protect flows for fish and for priority water users.

Fraser River flow levels at Shelley from August 1-October 30, 2018. River Forecast Centre
Fraser River flow levels at Shelley from August 1-October 30, 2018. River Forecast Centre

There are no regions in the province that remain at Level 1 normal streamflow levels. However, because of the variance of conditions within each region, some individual streams may be lower than others. Both tributaries and larger main-stem rivers are now experiencing rapidly dropping stream levels. Many streams are now at record lows.

Fish and aquatic ecosystems are at risk as water levels drop. Fish can become stranded in pools and exposed to high temperatures, which can be fatal, and may be subject to predation. Water users on all streams are reminded to ensure that water intakes are screened to Fisheries and Oceans Canada standards to prevent fish from being pulled into water systems as water levels drop.

Fraser River flow levels at Shelley from August 1-October 30, 2017. River Forecast Centre
Fraser River flow levels at Shelley from August 1-October 30, 2017. River Forecast Centre

Angling closures are in effect on the Horsefly and Kettle Rivers to reduce stress on fish. Staff are monitoring conditions and will assess whether further angling closures will be necessary.

Water conservation is everyone’s responsibility. Many communities in B.C. are prepared to deal with water supply shortages and low stream-flow conditions, and have drought-management plans and water-conservation programs already in place.