In British Columbia, Streams Have Gone Missing
Water is running out in a region known for rain
Allison Dennert was over a half mile out from Neekas Creek when she smelled the rotting salmon. She eventually reached a dry streambed, where she found the decaying bodies of pink salmon and no flowing water. Many of the fish appeared to carpet the streambed and surrounding forest floor. The bodies of others hung over formerly submerged logs, their white bellies pointed toward the sky.
Dennert, a PhD candidate studying salmon ecology at Simon Fraser University, estimates there were about 65,000 dead fish.
Each fall, salmon undertake a final journey, swimming up streams like Neekas Creek to lay and fertilize eggs before they die. From the looks of the dead salmon’s tails, Dennert could tell that they never had the chance to lay their eggs. Female salmon dig nests called redds at the bottoms of streams, swiping away gravel to create the perfect divot for their young. This motion shreds the ends of their tails—the scars from a last act of perseverance after their migration from the ocean back to their natal stream.
These salmon tails were intact. When Dennert pressed gently on a carcass with her shoe, neon-orange eggs oozed out onto the dry ground. “It was just the worst mass mortality of prespawn salmon I’ve ever seen,” she says.
Last year, streams across British Columbia ran dry in the late months of summer and well into fall. Some communities faced water shortages. Salmon across the coastline waited weeks or months to finish their migrations and spawn. Drought is not new in British Columbia. Some degree of dry conditions have persisted in parts of the province in nine of the past 10 years, and the region is expected to face increasingly dry summers.
Yet coastal British Columbia is famously damp—home to a massive rainforest and thousands of streams. The area’s rainfall is expected to increase as climate change fuels warmer temperatures that turn what would have been snow into rain. But it’s snowpacks, not rain, that recharge water stored underground as they melt during the spring and summer. This means climate change will present a paradox for the region, forcing British Columbia to contend with greater rainfall and less available water. Preserving groundwater is key to drought resiliency, but the province is struggling to protect it.
The massive fish kill at Neekas Creek represents the worst case of salmon deaths from drought last fall, says William Housty, the conservation manager for the Heiltsuk Integrated Resources Management Department. Neekas Creek falls within the Heiltsuk Tribe’s territory, where Housty’s department monitors streams and works to recover fish populations. This past fall, pink salmon left the ocean and rushed up the creek during a simultaneous burst of rain and a high tide that propelled the salmon into the stream.
“It doesn’t take long for those rivers to fill up with a little bit of rain,” notes Housty. When the rain and tide later subsided, the salmon were trapped without any water. “Salmon live by environmental triggers,” he says. “When they feel the rain come on and the temperature of the water changing a little bit … that’s their cue [to migrate].” This fall’s extended dry period changed that cue, making it difficult for salmon to adapt, Housty explains.
Salmon populations were impacted up and down British Columbia’s coastline, says Tom Balfour, a fish biologist with the Redd Fish Restoration Society and the Toquaht Nation. “We also saw a lot of offshore holding, fish staying offshore for longer than they normally do.” He monitors salmon hundreds of miles south of Heiltsuk territory on Vancouver Island. That waiting period, which lasted weeks or months for some salmon trying to migrate up dry streams, creates new risks and sources of mortality. When the plump fish concentrate on the coast, they attract predators like sea lions, seals, and even fishermen, Balfour says. Ultimately, “we probably lost quite a bit to this drought.”
The loss of a salmon population can impact the entire surrounding forest ecosystem. Migrating salmon bring essential nutrients to species like trees, plants, songbirds, and beetles. Typically, migrating salmon die after they reproduce the next generation, and as they decay the nutrients in their bodies feed the forest. If salmon populations disappear from some streams, it’s unknown how long it would take for other species to feel the impact, says Dennert. “There was a term that was coined a number of years ago called extinction debt, where you don't quite see the effects of something after it goes extinct from its ecological web; it takes several years for you to witness that,” she explains.
Salmon weren’t the only ones impacted by dry streams this fall. Communities across British Columbia faced potential water shortages, as they have in past years. The Heiltsuk Nation had plans in place to curtail water use, Housty says, but the rains arrived in late October before that was necessary. The Sunshine Coast unfortunately didn’t receive the same replenishing rain. The regional district declared a state of emergency in mid-October, which cut off large amounts of water to nonessential commercial users. This impacted breweries, nonmedical cannabis growers, paving businesses, and others.
In summer 2021, temperatures soared across the Pacific Northwest from June to July. The record for the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada was broken three days in a row in Lytton, British Columbia, maxing out at 121°F. At least 740 excess deaths were recorded from the extreme heat event in the province.
Scientists have linked the heat wave to climate change. Before the 1950s, the record temperatures would have been “virtually impossible,” but now the likelihood for this kind of heat wave is once in 200 years.
Drier streams and drought conditions could become more common in British Columbia during the summer due to climate change, according to research published in the Canadian Water Resources Journal. Typically, as temperatures rise each spring and summer, snowpacks melt over the course of many months. Some water flows through streams into the ocean, while other water seeps underground to enter aquifers and be stored as groundwater. “With climate change, we’re expecting that the thickness or the accumulation of snow in the winter will decrease, and there could be an earlier melt in the spring,” says Diana Allen, an author on the research paper and hydrogeology professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Simon Fraser University. This means there will be less melting snow flowing through streams, which can dry up by the end of the summer, as happened in 2022.
In many places, water monitors are starting to suspect some aquifers are being sucked dry. This is surprising because outside of the summer months, rainfall is increasing in British Columbia due to climate change. Total precipitation is expected to increase by 7 percent annually in the region by 2050. It’s easy to assume more rainfall would mean more available water, but the devil is in the details: Precipitation as snow will decrease by 29 percent as the temperature rises nearly 6°F. British Columbia will have about 43 fewer days with frost on the ground each year. This warming will have a drying effect on the region, since snowpacks refill groundwater and keep streams flowing during the summer. The additional precipitation, falling as rain, will paradoxically contribute to the gradual drying of British Columbia and its groundwater.
Amid these devastating climate disasters and a future with more predicted droughts, heat waves, and floods, British Columbia’s provincial government is attempting to protect groundwater resources, but with halting progress. Before 2016, British Columbia had never regulated groundwater, only surface water sources like streams and lakes. This unevenness in oversight led to problems for water supply, since groundwater and surface water are inextricably connected, and regulating one without the other opens major loopholes, says Donna Forsyth, a retired former legislative adviser for the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.
Forsyth contributed to the 2016 Water Sustainability Act, which empowered the government to recognize the way groundwater connects to surface water and to regulate it. The act created a hybrid system for groundwater rights, with preference to the seniority of groundwater users. Whoever has been using water the longest gets first priority in the event of water cutbacks due to drought.
There were about 20,000 major groundwater users before 2016, Mike Wei, a hydrogeologist who formerly worked for the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, and others estimate. They originally had three years to apply for their permit and keep their spot in line for water use based on seniority. That deadline was extended until March 1, 2022, but by then only about 7,000 groundwater users had applied. The roughly 13,000 groundwater users who missed this deadline effectively forfeited their legal rights to their water.
“Those people who missed the deadline have a choice. They can either work under the radar and divert water and hope nobody finds out. Or they can apply, but in either case, they don’t have that seniority anymore,” says Wei.
People drilling new groundwater wells are also expected to apply for applications, but the wait times are long. Wei points out that this has put many people in an impossible situation; it can take five to six years for someone to hear back about a well application. “Nobody can wait six years to develop their land,” says Wei. The lack of applications for new and historic wells makes it much harder for the province to manage groundwater in the ways the 2016 act outlines.
The province is now working on a Watershed Security Strategy fund to be implemented in 2024. A public engagement period just ended, with most respondents supporting increased government investment in watersheds, a representative of the British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship and Ministry of Forests, says.
One focus of the province’s security strategy and fund is working to find a way to regulate watersheds in partnership with First Nations, the representative says. They also pointed to other climate mitigation and nature restoration efforts outside the 2016 act that impact salmon and water. Forsyth says she isn’t convinced the strategy plans for 2024 are addressing the biggest gaps she sees in groundwater protection, such as implementing useful tools created in the 2016 act.
“Historically, in our province there have always been pressure-relief valves,” Wei says. When rainfall was low, people turned to water in streams. When the streams began to run dry, they turned to groundwater. When the province began regulating the groundwater, some turned to illegal water use. “We haven’t closed off all those pressure-relief valves,” he says, “[but] we’re in the process of doing that.”
As the region’s droughts intensify with climate change, British Columbia faces the existential question communities around the world are asking: Will there be enough resources for the people and species who need them, and will they be shared justly and sustainably?
For now, the scars of dry streams spread, and the ghosts of dead, unspawned salmon pile up, littering the coastline of an impermanently lush rainforest.