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According to experts, the first signs of drought in the province began almost exactly two years ago, in 2022.

This story is part of a series examining the far-reaching impacts of the ongoing drought and climate change seen across the province in recent years.

After a significant drought last year and devastating wildfires across much of British Columbia, the situation is being closely monitored now that summer has begun.

The signs of drought the province is now seeing began almost exactly two years ago, in 2022, said Jonathan Boyd of the BC River Forecast Centre.

“Those of us who work with drought thought 2022 would be a breeze,” he said.

This was due to rainfall and relatively cool temperatures during most of the spring and until early July. After that, however, there was virtually no rain for the rest of the summer.

“The Victoria-Gonzales weather station actually had the longest period of no precipitation of any station in Canada,” Boyd said. “That put us in a really difficult situation.”

Then, in 2023, a period of “incredibly hot weather” in May and the first half of June caused the snowpack that contributes to the water supply to rapidly melt, Boyd said.

“This resulted in rivers peaking earlier and then declining rapidly.”

He said the subsequent drought in 2023 was the worst British Columbia has ever seen and raises concerns about what 2024 will bring.

“This year, of course, there was tremendous media attention right from the first snow bulletin on January 1st, which reported how low the snowpack was across the province,” Boyd said.

Alan Gilchrist, a geography professor at Vancouver Island University, said a widely held view is that “drought is the new normal.”

“It’s definitely more on the radar of the average citizen and also the water managers out there.”

Global climate change is clearly contributing to this, said Gilchrist, as is population growth, which is causing greater water demand.

Boyd said there has been a positive weather pattern this spring in terms of shortening the drought and there has been little sustained heat.

In Victoria, for example, “there were just so few of those really, really hot days,” he said.

“We’re doing a little better in much of the province than we were at this time last year,” Boyd said. “If we had the spring weather we had last year, we’d be in a terrible situation across the province.”

On eastern Vancouver Island, the drought level at this time in 2023 was four (with five being the worst), but this year it is two.

But when it comes to avoiding the negative impacts of drought, 2024 is “certainly not a good year,” Boyd said.

Currently, the lower flow in some rivers following the low rainfall of the last few weeks is contributing to their warming, he said, which could have an impact on fish populations “and other aquatic ecosystems”.

“There will continue to be challenges,” Boyd said. “Vancouver Island always faces challenges starting in August and September until we eventually experience these atmospheric river events.”

Rivers typically recover relatively quickly after rainfall, says Gilchrist, who researches water flow dynamics and water management.

He said Vancouver Island’s watersheds are relatively small compared to other parts of the province and therefore would be more likely to feel the effects of a drought.

“The thing is, we have a lot of users on a single river system,” he said. “For example, on a river like the Koksilah in the southern part of the island in the Cowichan Valley, there are a number of farmers and rural residents who have wells that take water from the aquifer there, but there are also fish in the river itself.”

There are also agricultural needs, he said.

“When droughts occur, you essentially have competing uses.”

Last year, concerns about water levels led the province to issue fish protection orders in August for the Koksilah River, the Cowichan River and the Tsolum River near Courtenay to control human water use.

Lake Koksilah threatened steelhead trout populations, leading to restrictions including banning the use of the water for forage crops or industrial purposes.

On the Cowichan, high temperatures led to an algal bloom in the upper reaches of the river, which resulted in significant fish mortality. As an additional measure, the fishing ban had to be extended from September 1 to November 15.

Boyd said they hope there will be no extreme heat in the coming months “and that river levels will not necessarily be as dramatically low as they were last year.”

Some fish species have adapted to periods of drought, he said.

“We’ve seen that in recent years when the drought lasted into October,” Boyd said. “A lot of the spawning salmon were just waiting until the rain actually started and there was current in the rivers before they came up to spawn.”

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