Monday, February 26, 2024
February 26, 2024

Salt Spring water: a developing storyline

By John Millson, Anne Parkinson, Samantha Scott and Peter S. Ross

Freshwater is vital to life on Salt Spring Island, and to a healthy marine realm surrounding our beautiful home. Efforts to understand, monitor and protect our island’s watersheds are increasingly needed to support our island communities’ freshwater sustainability. Healthy freshwater and marine ecosystems underpin our island’s community and its natural systems sustainability.

During 2022-2023, the Salt Spring Island Water Preservation Society (SSIWPS), Marine Stewardship Group of Transition Salt Spring and Raincoast Conservation Foundation undertook a pilot study to examine water quality in seven creeks entering Fulford Harbour and possible effects on the adjacent marine ecosystems. The study goals included supporting the planned restoration of the sea gardens in W̱E¸NÁ¸NEĆ/Hwune’nuts (Fulford Harbour) by the W̱SÁNEĆ nations and Hul’q’umi’num-speaking nations. The participation of members from the W̱SÁNEĆ nations and Hul’q’umi’num-speaking nations delivered a strong sense of purpose, with Parks Canada contributing funding to the analyses. 

The pilot undertook summer, fall and spring water sampling, and measured flow, temperature, water velocity, conductivity, pH, dissolved oxygen, metal concentrations and fecal coliform.  The SSIWPS FreshWater Catalogue (FWC) provided a five-year baseline dataset which underpinned the pilot study field locations and informed an understanding of natural and seasonal change, key information for developing an appropriate pilot freshwater quality sampling program.

Our study measurement results largely fell within measured FWC ranges, from Fulford Harbour streams and other freshwater sampling sites across Salt Spring Island. There were no exceedances of B.C. environmental quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life for any of the water properties or metals. However, fecal coliforms were detected in the majority of water samples, indicating land-based contamination of creeks from wildlife, livestock, pets and/or humans. Fecal coliform counts were highest in summer and their detection raises questions about coliform sources (humans through failing septic tanks and/or faulty wastewater connections). 

The results of our collaborative stewardship island watersheds pilot study were published recently in a pilot water quality report for streams discharging into W̱E¸NÁ¸NEĆ/Hwune’nuts (Fulford Harbour), Salt Spring Island, British Columbia report. The pilot study did not include pesticides, hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals, roadway contaminants or other contaminants of concern, “invisibles” that may originate from homes, businesses and roadways in the watersheds draining into Fulford Harbour.  However, more than five years of SSIWPS-led freshwater cataloguing and watershed reconnaissance work (some 8,000+ recorded FWC field sites across the island’s watersheds) highlight several potential sources of invisibles that impact our island watersheds and creek-systems. Tagged “refuse” (tires, sofas, cars, “historic” household waste, etc.) occurs in multiple in-stream or near-stream settings within the Fulford Creek watershed and elsewhere.   

The findings from the pilot study speak to the value of collaborative stewardship and of the need for sampling for a wider suite of contaminants. The pilot study report recommendations include:

• Regular monitoring of the seven streams for coliform levels to establish temporal and seasonal trends,

• Bacterial source tracking to identify the host species for coliform contamination in these streams,

• A more in-depth study of Fulford Creek to assess the extent to which this principal freshwater stream in Fulford Harbour releases other contaminants of concern (“invisibles”), and

• A regular forum that brings First Nations, government agencies and stewardship organizations together in support of transparency, sharing, monitoring for threats and solution opportunities for our precious fresh and marine water systems.

Future re-opening of shellfish harvesting in the sea gardens will benefit from comprehensive data that identifies threats to the freshwater that discharges into Fulford Harbour. A first glimpse into water quality in Fulford streams provides some reason for optimism, but suggests that we may wish to dig a little deeper into contaminants that were not part of this study. In-depth knowledge will provide meaningful guidance for best practices in Fulford-area watersheds. 

To see the full report, visit: raincoast.org/reports/saltspring-pilot/.

Want to get involved? Contact info@ssiwaterpreservationsociety.ca or marinestewardshipssi@gmail.com.

John Millson is a SSIWPS board director at large and the FWC project lead. Anne Parkinson is the chair of the Transition Salt Spring Marine Stewardship Group. Samantha Scott is the water quality coordinator at Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Peter S. Ross is senior scientist and director of the Healthy Waters Program at Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

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