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Lauren Brown Hornor is the Vancouver Waterkeeper, and co-founder of Miami Waterkeeper, and Sadie Caron is the Fraser Riverkeeper for Swim Drink Fish Canada.

All communities need swimmable, drinkable, fishable water to thrive. We share a vision of a world where communities can drink the water flowing from their taps without fear of illness – where people can touch their local waters without risking their health, and where fish and wildlife prosper in their natural environment. But right now, in the aftermath of the series of atmospheric rivers that bombarded southern B.C. and caused evacuations, widespread flooding and mudslides, water in British Columbia is under threat – and residents are unaware of the extent of the risks.

After the onslaught of these floods, the waste treatment plant in Merritt, B.C., failed. It has since returned to operation, but tainted water was the main factor that drove the entire town’s residents to evacuate their homes and leave their lives behind. On Nov. 24, Abbotsford, in conjunction with Fraser Health Authority, issued a Do Not Use Water (Flush Only) Advisory – replacing a previous boil water advisory issued just a week prior – because of continued uncontrollable water main breaches that risked surface water entering the drinking water system. (It is now back to a boil water warning.)

And B.C.’s Ministry of Health warned residents in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley of contamination in private drinking-water wells in flooded areas owing to potential overflow or failures of liquid manure storage systems. Those who use a private well for their water should test its quality, even if they are not in directly affected flood areas.

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The water of these communities, once essential for life, is now a great danger to their health – not just to drink, but even just to touch.

Swimmable water means more than being able to enjoy a day at the beach. It also means being able to touch the water safely.

Volunteers from conservation groups are still working to rescue fish, and these heroic efforts are putting them in direct contact with contaminated water.

A toxic soup of pollutants is swirling: petroleum slicks, raw sewage, animal waste, fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, deceased animals, garbage and even asbestos fibres. All this and more has been detected floating in the water by volunteers working to salvage homes and communities.

The people of B.C. need to understand that protecting oneself around contaminated water is paramount. When coming into contact with it, proper personal protective equipment must be worn. Otherwise, stay away. We cannot consider the water safe until data show it to be safe.

Sadly, this toxic waste will affect the habitat of aquatic and plant life as well as human dwellings.

Fishable means water that can support healthy and viable aquatic life. We have great concern for the well-being of the province’s already precarious salmon population. In Abbotsford, salmon were found struggling on flooded sidewalks and fields, unable to finish their run while freshly laid eggs were at risk of being washed away.

Flooding is a natural part of a river system, but the timing and severity of B.C.’s event is devastating because it’s happening as fish have recently laid eggs and some are still spawning. As the raging water, landslides and fallen trees ravage the area, the gravel holding salmon eggs gets scoured out. Then silt is deposited in the gravel beds, which can settle upon and smother the eggs, as well as clog gills and disturb habitat.

Though it is too early to tell exactly how the flood will affect salmon, contaminants such as fertilizer from agricultural land and other pollutants from roadways poison the waterways. The toxic waste that is building up in the flood zone is being pumped back into the river, and this toxic cocktail is hazardous to fish and the thousands of organisms they feed on.

B.C. is now assessing the flood damage, but the best thing to mitigate future catastrophes stemming from extreme weather is prevention and preparedness. This includes protecting and restoring forest cover, investing in green infrastructure and engaging members of Indigenous communities in practices they have used for millennia. Climate conversations must move from the background to the forefront, with calls to reconsider flood mapping, refocus long-term plans to include climate resilience and adaptability, and heighten awareness of where and how we are building.

We have found that people who make the smartest choices for their communities are the ones who understand their personal connection to water, know the local protection laws and regulations and adhere to traditional knowledge. Now, as many B.C. communities work to restore their livelihoods, we urge all Canadians to keep swimmability, drinkability and fishability top of mind.

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