Historic low levels forecast for Campbell system

Impact on fish habitat, recreation targets feared

Facing a historic shortage of water, BC Hydro is looking forward to a summer of juggling fish habitat flows in Campbell River with recreational use in the reservoir above John Hart dam.

And it may not be able to satisfy either of them.

“The reality is, unless we get significant rainfall from storms in the next few months, the preferred fish and recreation targets can’t be achieved,” said Stephen Watson, BC Hydro spokesman. “We’ve never seen such a low water supply forecast for May to September.”

BC Hydro’s water use plan provides clear direction on flow regimes, and prescribed corrective action zones when water abundance gets low to try to balance the water conditions across the system, Watson said. But falling water flows resulting from low snowpack and dry weather are combining to aggravate those challenges.

It is the second straight year with low water inflows into the Campbell River system, following consecutive winters that left precious little snowpack in the mountains.

BC Hydro’s updated February to September water supply forecast, now into May, shows inflows into the system are forecast to be about 79 per cent of normal. This forecast considers snow pack, precipitation, and historical water inflows from the last 50 years. Depending on seasonal weather conditions, the variance in this inflow is typically plus or minus five per cent.

“However, the key indicator is the residual water supply forecast, from May to September, is showing just 40 per cent of normal – this is uncharted territory,” said Watson. “Ultimately, the challenge for BC Hydro will be to balance various water use interests in the system from here onward.”

BC Hydro has been operating the John Hart generating station at about two-thirds of capacity and this will continue. This flow release of 80 cubic metres per second is lower than the preferred fish habitat target, and it will go lower.

At the end of May or early June, the discharges will be dropped to about one-half of capacity and well below target flows to conserve water through into early fall. Campbell River flows will range from about 80 m3/s in May, drop to about 65 m3/s around June 1, and drop again to around 30 m3/s on July 1 through the summer. BC Hydro recently met with government fish agencies to get their agreement to the plan. Ideal fish habitat flows and power generation levels would typically be around 100 m3/s through June, and about 40 m3/s in July.

“We had a conference call with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and with (the Ministry of) Forests, Lands and Natural Resources,” said Watson. “We communicate with them throughout the year anyway, and wanted to keep them apprised of the conditions.”

Above the dam, the Lower Campbell Reservoir/McIvor Lake and the Upper Campbell Reservoir/Buttle Lake may likely be at or near the bottom of the preferred reservoir level targets for the summer recreation season.

“Ideal reservoir recreation for Upper Campbell Reservoir is around 219.5 metres,” said Watson. “For this summer, from June through into early September, from what we know now our forecast is the reservoir may cling near the 217-metre level. The preferred summer recreation reservoir range is from 217 m to 220.5 m. Conditions this year may be slightly lower than the very dry conditions in 2014. The reservoir is currently at 217.8 metres.”

Watson said that will leave the shoreline less aesthetically pleasing, with more exposed sand and gravel, and could potentially make putting boats in the water more challenging.

“They’ll still be able to use the reservoirs,” he said. “We just wanted to give people the heads-up that we’re looking at another lower than normal summer.”

It has been a tale of weather extremes for the watershed over the past year, from the fall and winter period with the record-setting storm systems providing heavy rain, to the record low snowpack and potentially very low water abundance conditions through the summer.

The upper Campbell River system reservoirs were full at the end of winter, Watson said, but have been trending downward since the storm at the end of March.

BC Hydro is now faced this spring and summer with balancing river fish habitat flows and recreation targets in the reservoir, given the snowpack conditions.

The snowpack has been trending along near record low levels and in early April, it became the lowest snowpack for this time of year since records started in 1981. At one snow measurement location at 1,600 metres of elevation, no snow has accumulated since mid-January.

The April water inflows into the Campbell River system were low, at 84 per cent of average. For May, given the start to it and the near-term forecast and very low snowpack, the water inflows also look to be very low. The low precipitation the past six weeks is compounded by the record low snowpack conditions. The water inflows are trending near record lows for this time of year at only about 30-40 m3/s.

“BC Hydro is trying to provide the right flows for fish for rearing and outmigration with negligible snowpack,” Watson said. “At the same time, we’re trying to provide for recreation. It’s not going to be ideal for either.”