Skip to content

Not much river running through it, in Quesnel, Cariboo, B.C.

Drought sucking drinking water away from forests, fish, and now people

Concerns about low water are not shallow.

Homeowners with wells and lakefront water sources are concerned, and anyone involved in environmental conditions - fish, forests, farms, fires - are also worried about what the spring may hold based on present conditions.

The Fraser River looks at the Quesnel River to be a major northern tributary, ever since the Nechako River was reduced to about one-third of its natural size once the Kenney Dam was operational in 1954 (that third is controlled by humans).

Today, the Nechako represents about eight per cent of the total Fraser River water content, by the time it reaches Hope. The Quesnel River provides about six per cent, and the Chilcotin River about three per cent before the Thompson River adds 27 per cent at Lytton (according to an Environment Canada report).

While not at the lowest point in the past 12 months, the current state of the Quesnel River is paltry. Water in the Quesnel River is monitored for its velocity and its depth, which were, on Dec. 27, 63 cubic metres per second (m3/s) and 1.4 metres (m), respectively. It had been as low as 1.3m on Dec. 14, with a flow of 52m3/s, but some melting has added water, which, at this time of year, is only subtracting what would normally be part of the spring freshet.

Just before the most recent spring runoff, the river reached its 2023 minimum levels of 41.7m3/s and 1.18m of depth.

During the peak spring runoff, the Quesnel River reached a maximum depth of 3.9 metres, with a water velocity of 847m3/s, in 2023.

According to Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship spokesperson Peter Lee, the low river water traces all the way back to the lakes in the mountains that feed them.

“The Water Survey of Canada (WSC) gauge for Quesnel Lake near Likely has been in operation since 1956 for a historical record of almost 70 years. From mid-June 2023 to the present, daily average lake levels have been continuously at or near the lowest on record for the time of year,” Lee said. “The Quesnel River was at historical daily minimum flows almost continuously from late June to mid October, and has only slightly increased in the fall, remaining below the 10th percentile for daily flows.”

Lee said the Horsefly River, a major inflow to Quesnel Lake, reached historical daily lows in early June and remained at or near the lowest on record for the time of year consistently into September. Some fall rainstorms brought levels up a bit, temporarily, “but as of November 23, daily flows were the lowest on record for the time of year.”

Tŝilhqox Biny (Chilko Lake) and Taseko Lakes showed better results, but Lee noted they are fed by more glacial melt, so that boosts consistency - as long as the glaciers remain.

Water wells running dry made the recent news in Prince George, which caused the BC Ground Water Association to raise alarm bells. Their annual general meeting is coming up in April, and drought conditions for two consecutive years, now, will be part of the discussion. The provincial government updated the British Columbia Drought And Water Scarcity Response Plan in April, as a symptom of what’s happening on the landscape.

Barry Elliott is an example of another sign of the water’s times. Like many central B.C. residents, he draws household water from an adjacent lake beside his family’s house. He lives in the Lakes District (the area from about Fraser Lake to Houston, and Babine Lake to Tweedsmuir Park), where the region’s name indicates just how many of his neighbours do the same.

An improperly installed water line by previous owners first caused problems about three years ago, so he was underway with repairs ahead of this climate event that caused water levels to shrink, bringing the potential ice depth that much closer to the intake pipes, which normally run along the floor of a lake untouched by the deep freeze above.

“There’s not a chance in hell, even at normal water levels, that it wouldn’t (at shallow depths) freeze in the winter. And it did,” he said of the line installed in water too shallow.

“We’ve already had the line freeze once this year,” Elliott said, saying the line’s foot valve was in only about two feet of water. He recently added about 100 extra linear feet of pipe and that dropped the foot valve to a depth of five feet. “In a normal year, if that’s even a thing anymore, the lake will be two or three feet higher.”

He spent the past two years researching possible solutions, he said, and in the past few weeks installed what he hopes will be the permanent fix. An Ontario company called Heatline makes a product called Retro-Line, a pipe heating cable with built-in sensors to keep specific portions of an underwater pipe from jamming with ice. Its effectiveness is now being tested by whatever 2024 weather brings.

“I think others will have issues this year with the low lake levels, unless they’ve taken further steps,” Elliott said. Since he was out on the water in the canoe with measuring tools, anyway, for his own frigid remediation work, he let his boat wander with his curiosity.

“I was checking out other people’s waterlines and even measured the depths of a few of their footvalves,” he said. “While mine was definitely the shallowest at 2.5 feet, almost all of them were less than four feet. I think a fair number of people think that because they’ve never had an issue before, that this year won’t be any different. Hopefully it will be a mild winter, and the ice doesn’t get too thick.”

What is saving many lakefront homeowners from group freeze-ups is the mild temperatures this winter has brought along with the lack of moisture. If the temperature dips, though, the taps could turn off.

READ MORE: Working out the drought with Quesnel farmers - Gov seminar delivers info

READ MORE: It’s warmer than ever in Quesnel, breaking multiple temperature marks