Volunteers track health of Nanaimo watershed

NANAIMO – Regional District of Nanaimo hopes to see its first indication of the state of its watersheds this year

The region’s murky picture of river health will begin to clear for the first time this year thanks to a network of volunteer water testers.

Volunteer stewards with the Nanaimo Regional District’s watershed monitoring program are out in full force this month, tracking the turbidity and temperature of area waterways in an attempt to discover the state of  watersheds. The results will offer regional officials their first in-depth look into the health of rivers and what could be affecting them.

Until 2011, the province had only been monitoring the health of three Nanaimo-area rivers because of limited resources,  leaving countless others with little or no monitoring. Experts said the lack of widespread oversight left the regional district with a murky picture of just how well managed and protected its watersheds were and the affect its growing population could be having on fish habitat and water quality.

Three years ago the district put the responsibility of monitoring into the hands of local stewardship groups with the help of the province – creating the first initiative of its kind on Vancouver Island. Upwards of 30 water courses have been monitored so far and enough information has been gathered for the B.C. government to spot emerging trends this year.

“This is an important year because we are going to start seeing the picture [of stream health] develop,” said Mike Donnelly, the regional district’s manager of water services. “In fact, this is the first time such a comprehensive approach has been taken. This hasn’t been seen anywhere else.”

Regional district officials say the goal is to collect as much data as possible on the state of waterways to make it easier to create policies needed to protect watersheds and spot problems early on.

The regional population has been growing by an average three per cent each year, but until now there has been little information on the effect the trend has had on waterways and what – if anything – the district can do to preserve its water quality, Donnelly said.

“We have all been hoping to … see a smoking gun right away, but we need the data first,” he said.

The district’s volunteers has been tracking the cloudiness, temperature and oxygen levels in a number of area waterways, including 14 this year. According to the RDN, the data is logged into a database and compared to the Ministry of Environment’s provincial water quality guidelines to see if the quality of water has changed. Temperatures that are too hot, for example, could damage fish habitat.

Ten stewardship groups including the Nanaimo Area Land Trust and Nanoose-Lantzville Streamkeepers will be spending the next five weeks gathering information on waterways with the help of close to $3,000 from Island Timberlands. Nanaimo River, the Cat Stream and Departure Creek will be among the courses charted this season.

The B.C. government says this is the first initiative of its kind on the Island, but expects other jurisdictions will soon pick up on the community-based monitoring. The Cowichan Valley Regional District is already looking at creating a similar program of its own.

Dawn Keim, the district’s drinking water and watershed protection coordinator, said its difficult for community leaders to make any meaningful decisions without a solid understanding of local ground and surface water quality. This “progressive initiative” can help, especially if volunteers continue to help track the state of local rivers and build a trend database over the long term, she said.

“Increased monitoring directly increases your chance of detecting when there’s a problem [so you can employ] mitigation activities to protect the population and ecosystems and improve the overall health of watersheds,” Keim said. “The drinking water and watershed protection program was developed for that reason.”