Remaining Okanagan wetlands need protection

Wetlands are more than a haven for mosquitoes or a place to dump worn-out tires.

In a sense, we’re all guilty of destroying wetlands, habitat for a myriad of often-endangered species in the Okanagan.

After all, Kelowna’s downtown area used to be all wetlands, as did much of the property for miles around Mission Creek, where the land is now farmed and the creek has been channelled away in a ditch to prevent it from inundating acres of land during its peak runoff each spring.

“In the historical context, this city was built on the destruction of local wetlands,” points out Nelson Jatel, water stewardship director for the Okanagan Basin Water Board, who has lived in the valley for most of his life. “We collectively share in the guilt.”

He’s project manager for the first phase of the Okanagan Wetlands Strategy, a collaboration of the OBWB, B.C. Wildlife Federation and Central Okanagan Regional District, each of which will contribute in-kind work toward the project.

Jatel notes that we all are beneficiaries of channelizing and damming projects of the 1940s and 1950s in the Okanagan Valley; projects that have changed the face of the valley in the past 200 years or so.

“Hopefully this project will capture some of the history and alert people to the importance of what’s remaining,” he added.

He’s excited about the project which he sees as ‘putting our house in order,’ and putting wetlands on people’s radar.

It’s a role he sees as very fitting for the OBWB, bringing resources and people together to create a warehouse of comprehensive information about wetlands.

Because the Okanagan has such a dry climate, wetlands are home to many species at risk, from Tiger Salamanders to Painted Turtles and a wide variety of ducks and geese.

The idea will be to pull information from all sources, including individuals, to locate as many wetlands as possible and to get a feeling for how people view wetlands; whether they value them, and if so, in what ways.

The data will all be integrated in a map with many layers for the whole Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, so it will be a map that reflects the different lenses of the different people who value wetlands—or not.

Involved in a technical advisory capacity are the City of Kelowna, Ducks Unlimited, the South Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Program, the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program, North Okanagan Regional District, Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Environment Canada, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, Okanagan College, and the Ministry of Agriculture.

Armed with an Environment Canada Sustainable Ecosystems Program grant of $35,000, the $64,800 project is now in the collecting-information stage, a task that’s been contracted to Ecoscape Environmental Consultants, led by senior aquatic biologist Kyle Hawes, one of its principals.

He points out that 85 per cent of wildlife use wetlands directly or indirectly, so they’re critical habitat, particularly in the Okanagan, which is home to many rare and endangered species.

As well, they have spiritual values to First Nations people and esthetic values to many other people, as serene places to enjoy nature, for education and for recreation.

In addition to providing biodiversity and habitat for species at risk, wetlands are important tools in flood control. “They act like a sponge to hold back water; to allow it to spill over into riparian areas and release it slowly,” he explained. They also help recharge groundwater resources.

Wetlands remove excess nutrients and purify water. In fact, engineers today construct wetlands specifically to filter runoff and storm water.

They’re also important in erosion control.

More than 85 per cent of the Okanagan’s wetland and natural riparian habitat has been lost, most filled in for development of one sort or another—and the loss continues, although it’s slowed, says Hawes.

Wetlands are at risk from vineyard and other agricultural development and activities, cattle grazing, improper drainage management, road construction and hazard tree removal in addition to development.

Contamination and invasive species threaten their health. Climate change will likely alter wetland habitats, and with development of other sorts, fragmentation can reduce their effectiveness.

And then there’s recreation, particularly an activity known as mud-bogging, which involves intentionally destroying wetlands, just for the fun of it.

Margaret Bakelaar, environmental/land use planner for the regional district, says they have Sensitive Habitat and Inventory Maps or SHIM, Wetland Inventory  and Mapping or WIM and Foreshore Inventory Mapping or FIM and worked with a student from UBCO to do baseline maps of wetlands, but this project will compile information from around the valley.

The regional district had planned to hold public workshops on wetlands, but found the BCWF was planning to do the same thing, so the collaboration was born.

“We want to know where the priority wetlands are and where they’re under pressure from development,” she explained.

“The more information we have, the better. It provides valuable guidance for decision-making,” she added.

Once wetlands have been identified there can be a focus on stewardship, she noted. There are lots of non-government agencies out there interested in restoration or protection of wetlands, she added.

Protection is a priority over restoration, she noted.

There are other tools such as covenants through land trusts to protect sensitive natural features, she said.

The BCWF has had a wetlands program since 1996 and is the only group to hold onto the Wetlandkeepers program, which was adopted by the organization, explains Neil Fletcher, wetlands education program coordinator.

It has projects going on around the province to help communities restore wetland habitat, enhance and conserve wetlands, and had planned to get involved in some work in the Okanagan when Fletcher discovered other projects were getting underway.

“We didn’t want to re-invent the wheel, so we collaborated,” he explained.

The aim is to engage more fish and game clubs to get involved in projects conserving wetlands.

“There’s a huge base of volunteers there,” he commented.

The BCWF Wetlands Education Program has the support of Wildlife Habitat Canada, the Real Estate Foundation of B.C. and Shell Canada.

Once Ecoscape completes the outreach portion of the project and collates the results of the data gathering process, there’ll be a clearer idea of what now exists in the valley, he noted, and from there, priorities can be set so volunteers interested in a field project know where they should begin.

Project underway

Ecoscape staff have been collecting data from a variety of sources so they can consolidate the information that’s already been gathered by other agencies, and is organizing meetings with the public, First Nations, fish and game clubs and naturalists’ organizations.

They’ll be asking people to list wetlands they’re aware of and describe the sort of wetland it is: whether there’s open water; whether it’s swamp, marsh, fen or bog and what types of vegetation there is.

Wildlife observations are also important, from animals to birds and insects.

The potential risks to each wetland are also important, noted Hawes.

That information will be gathered together in a single document with assessments of what everyone has had to say, including their comments on the importance of wetlands to them and what qualities matter the most.

From that, a list of priority wetlands will emerge.

Taking action to protect, enhance or restore wetlands would be part of a next phase of the project.

To contribute your knowledge and valuation of wetlands, go to: surveymonkey.com/s/okanagan_wetlands_strategy_phase1

A public meeting has tentatively been set for Thurs., Nov. 28 at a location yet to be determined.

jsteeves@kelownacapnews.com

Kelowna Capital News

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