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Kettle River, long abused, serves as a warning sign for B.C.’s water supply

When it runs hot and low, as it increasingly does, the Kettle River becomes something of a death trap for rainbow trout.

The fish have to retreat to deep pools or they might die when the water heats up to 20 C or more, as it often does during low flows in July and August. Trouble is, only about 5 to 7 per cent of the total habitat in the Kettle and its main tributaries, the West Kettle and Granby Rivers, provides the deep-water refuge the fish need to survive.

With precious little water to hide in, trout become concentrated in a few places, where fishermen can easily catch and kill them, even if the heat doesn't. Pools littered with fish heads show that catch-and-release closures are being ignored.

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This is just one of the many problems water managers are grappling with on the Kettle River, which runs through an arid landscape just east of the Okanagan Valley, where demand for water is outstripping supply. And it promises to get worse. A study shows that with moderate population growth, water demand could increase 116 per cent by 2050.

In many ways the Kettle serves as a warning sign of what's to come in British Columbia, as climate change exacerbates problems already created through poor water management.

The good news for the Kettle is that the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB) recognized what was happening and four years ago began work on a comprehensive plan that would allow the watershed, and its trout, to survive, and perhaps even thrive in a warming world.

The final discussion paper for the plan was released last week, and this fall it will go before the board where Graham Watt, project co-ordinator for RDKB, hopes it gets approval. If it does, an all-out push will begin to reduce the amount of water being sucked out of the river.

The report calls for a move "towards a culture of water conservation" and away from one in which water is treated as a cheap, endless resource.

"High levels of water use per capita and perceptions that the water supply is limitless or 'ours to use' are major barriers to improving water conservation," states the paper.

In an interview, Mr. Watt said: "There's a need for behaviour change and attitude change. A lot of it will come down to accepting that there is a different way of doing things."

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A lot of people will have to make sacrifices if the plan is to succeed.

Let's start with the fishermen. Trout are easily caught when they school in refuge pools. The study says trout need protection. The best way to do that is to strictly enforce catch-and-release regulations for the entire river, year round, until stocks are restored. And fishing closures may be necessary when the river gets above 20 C.

Ranchers and farmers must reduce their use of water, but to do that they'll have to switch to more efficient irrigation systems, which will require financial help from the provincial government.

Urban homeowners will have to stop sprinkling lawns, which is a major drain on the Kettle.

Damaged fish habitat has to be restored and stream bank vegetation replanted. The Okanagan chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada is already working on that problem, but it needs help.

There will have to be less logging along tributary streams and mining companies need to figure out how to do more with less water.

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Increased water storage is needed in the spring, so minimum flows can be maintained through the summer. That means infrastructure spending by the province.

The Kettle has been abused over the past century. People have been taking too much water out for too long and not doing enough to protect the stream banks.

Mr. Watt said the challenge now is "to help people take a step back from the water."

If the people of the Kootenay Boundary region don't do that, the Kettle will continue to simmer, and pool by pool, the river will die.

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