Water expert Bob Sandford to speak in Nelson

The internationally known water expert will deliver an address on April 23 at the Hot and Bothered in the Kootenays conference.

Water expert Bob Sandford says there is “not enough of a sense of urgency” about water

Bob Sandford thinks the rate of population growth in the Kootenays will increase over the coming decades because warming temperatures will lead to increasing migrations in North America from the coastlines and into the mountains. It’s already happening in California.

“California is hemorrhaging people right now and will continue to do so, and I have always argued that the migrations are going to be inland and uphill,” he says. “Inland away from sea level rise and aquifer contamination, and uphill toward cooler temperatures, toward water. And you in the Kootenays have the ideal location because you have a vibrant local culture and landscape but also relatively intact ecosystems and water.”

“These things have to be taken into account [by people in the Kootenays]. It is not just about protecting yourself, it is understanding what is happening globally and regionally and how that will impact you.”

Sandford, who lives in Canmore, Alta., is the EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health. He’ll speak at the Hot and Bothered in the Kootenays conference in Nelson on April 23, which will address many aspects of water, drought, and climate change.

The list of his other water-related advisory and educational posts in Canada and elsewhere is long, and he is the author of Cold Matters: The State and Fate of Canada’s Snow and Ice, and Saving Lake Winnipeg. He co-authored Flood Forecast: Climate Risk and Resilience in Canada with Kerry Freek. His latest book, The Columbia River Treaty: A Primer, was published in the fall of 2014

Nelson and the continent

Sandford is familiar with water issues in  the West Kootenay and with Nelson’s shortage last summer, but looks at them in a larger continental context of warming, snowpack, precipitation and stream flow.

“For example, Alberta experienced record high temperatures from January to March 2015. The precipitation was normal but because of the warmer temperatures the precipitation came down more as rain than snow, and as a result we did not have much snow, and that began to melt a month to six weeks earlier, resulting in stream flows that peaked by mid-May.”

He said last summer Alberta was in a state of “hydrologic drought, which means that in the absence of the snow pack and the stream flow to which we have become accustomed, precipitation could not keep up with evaporation and all of the region began to dry out.

“Maximum daily rainfalls were in the order of 10 or 12 mm and the forests here were evaporating 6 or 7 mm of rainfall so there was almost no rainfall impact on already low stream flows. The Bow River dropped to a quarter of what it was in June and as of June 15 last year the BC snowpack was five per cent of normal.”

He said a similar dynamic led to the kinds of water shortages and dry forests experienced in the Nelson area last summer.

Wildfires: not enough sense of urgency

Sandford remembers media photos of the Sitkum fire outside Nelson last summer.

“We had similar fire conditions in northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. There were more than 450 active wildfires in BC last summer. Fire does not just affect the forest, it affects how much water the forests can hold and release over time.

“There was drought last year from Mexico to the Arctic and from Vancouver Island all the way to the Manitoba border, and so many of my colleagues are arguing that extreme variability will become the climate norm, and many scientists attending this conference in Nelson will stress the critical importance of developing really strong adaptation and resilience measures now, because this is not on its way in the future, it is here now.”

And to develop adaptation measures, don’t wait for senior governments, Sandford says.

“I will be speaking at Touchstones museum on the critical importance of a local sense of place and and what can be done locally to get ahead of the curve and respond in advance to these trends. There is not enough of a sense of urgency, and I am hoping to give people a sense of how important it is and to act on it, in the theatre in which they can have the greatest influence, which is locally.”

‘Feel the river flow through your hands’

Sandford may be a scientist, but he speaks and writes poetically about our relationship with water.

“All you have to do,” he told the Star, “is walk by a lake or beach by the ocean and you can feel the water within yearning for the water without. We have a very strong physical connection to water and need to pay attention to those deep intuitive sensibilities that make water so much a part of our way of life and our identity as Canadians.”

In an interview with Impakter, an American online news site, he said “Ankle deep in surf … the water within us feels the tug of the tide. You know water, but water also knows you.

“Go to the kitchen. Turn on your tap. Let the water run. Feel the cool moisture of wind and the wetness of cloud and rain. Feel the cold of snow and the hardness of glacier ice. Hear thunder. Feel the river flow through your hands. Fill a glass. Bring it to your lips. Search with your tongue for water’s memory of far-away seas. Taste distant mountains. Feel the fissures in deep limestone tingle on your tongue.

“Hold the glass up to sunlight. See our star burn through the sparkling lens made of the most amazing of all liquids.

Water, food, climate: inseparable

Sandford says we need to look at restorative processes.

“I am arguing globally for restorative agriculture, not just agriculture that produces the maximum amount of food but that restores systems so we don’t end up with a world totally covered with what it takes for us to eat, systems that actually stabilize our water and climate stability problems.

“I do not separate water security, food security and climate stability. They are the same thing, each just one expression of the other. You change one parameter in one and it affects the others. I will be talking about that too. “

Sandford says two things keep him awake at night.

The first is the possibility that warming temperatures will awaken dormant species of bacteria and viruses.

“Most genetic forms around the globe lie dormant, they are in a kind of seed bank [that may] begin to multiply when the environment changes in ways that suit DNA preferences if they are presented with the right acidity or the right light or the right temperatures.

“Global health experts tell us a vast storage of bacterial DNA exists ready to leap into these new bacterial forms at the slightest change in conditions. We may see life forms we have never seen before that we will probably not be very happy with. HIV, Ebola, H1N1 and Zika are just a hint of what could come if we continue to change the conditions. There are no assurances, so we have to be ready for everything.”

The second thing that keeps him awake

Sandford says that the eutrophication of water is exploding in Canada. He is referring to algal blooms resulting from the addition of artificial or natural nutrients, mainly phosphates, through detergents, fertilizers, or sewage, to an aquatic system, leading to species diversity decline, toxicity, and invasive species.

He says we need to start thinking about this in the Kootenays to avoid what is happening to many lakes in Canada such as Lake Winnipeg, the sixth largest lake in Canada.

“What I have seen is really unusual and deeply troubling — algal blooms 17,000 square kilometres in area on Lake Winnipeg. This deteriorating ecological condition appears to be increasing by the month, not by the year as in the past.”

If global warming results in more flooding, that will mobilize even more nutrients (e.g. manure) into Lake Winnipeg, he says.

Sandford says researchers have discovered dangerous algal cianotoxins in Lake Winnipeg and in 246 lakes from coast to coast, making eutrophication of lakes a national issue. Invasive species like the zebra mussel just make things worse.

Less ice, more warming

“A global survey has revealed climate change is causing lakes to warm faster than the oceans or air around them,” Sanford says. “One reason is that warmer temperatures are producing less ice on lakes. Reduced ice coverage means increased amount of sunlight absorbed by lakes, raising temperatures, and this exacerbates problems associated with eurtophication, speeding up the conversion of carbon rich organic matter in the lakes, which generates methane and carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere to further exacerbate the global situation.

“This problem is spreading and you don’t want that where you are. You need to pay close attention to and you want to avoid invasive species.”

The Star learned Thursday that the Hot and Bothered conference has sold out. The event’s web page states: “With so much interest shown in the forum there is obviously a need for more regional discussion on water, drought and climate change and we hope this event will mobilize community discussion and similar events in the future.”

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