The use of dams to control and capture water flows is a conflicting issue.
With two points of view in the debate, both sides will get aired out at the annual online World Water Day documentary screening and panel discussion organized by the Okanagan Basin Water Board on March 21, 6:30 to 9 p.m.
The featured film will be DamNation, a 2014 documentary directed by Ben Knight and Travis Rummel advocating for the changing attitudes in the United States concerning the large system of dams across that country.
Taking a different viewpoint will be Bob Hrasko, executive director of the Black Mountain Irrigation District (BMID).
Hrasko says while there is a good case behind the negative impact of large dams that generate hydropower on the environment they impact, he notes there is also a positive case to be made for dams and reservoirs on a smaller level helping to supplement creek and lake levels in a watershed.
“There is no way in the Okanagan that the natural flow of creeks could support what we use to irrigate crops without the dams we have at the higher elevation levels to capture and hold back the water,” he said.
“And when the fish habitat water flows are lower in August through October, where Mission Creek is down to a trickle, the dam water releases helped those lower creeks.”
Hrasko says to him, the secret is to build dams at the highest elevation to have the lowest impact on fisheries stocks and habitat, to conserve the most reliable source of water before it filters out into the valley tributaries.
He says safety standards for dams, such as those operated by the BMID, are being upgraded by the province.
“Our Black Mountain dams are in pretty good shape having undergone dam safety reviews and had seismic upgrades. They are being assessed at a higher level than ever before,” he said.
He feels the secret is to raise existing dams where there is a reliable flow to capture more water, rather than building new ones.
“It is the best bang for our buck and causes the least environmental damage because the dam is already in place,” he said.
“It is the easiest water to protect up there at higher elevations. There are fewer people and less industry up there.”
One of the most significant impacting dams in the valley is the Penticton facility that anchors the Okanagan Lake Regulation System, managing the flows of the Okanagan watershed from Osoyoos to Vernon along a connecting network of lakes and rivers.
A process is currently ongoing, expected to take about seven years, to assess the current capabilities of that dam and how lake levels are managed to address climate change impacts such as flooding and drought, fish management, agriculture needs and more.
Joining Hrasko on the Water Day panel discussion will be Richard Armstrong, Syilx traditional ecological knowledge keeper calyx; Okanagan Nation Alliance fisheries biologist Dawn Machin; and OBWB executive director Anna Warwick Sears.
The event is free but registration is required in advance at https://DamNation_WWD2023.eventbrite.ca/.