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YEAR IN REVIEW: Arrow Lakes Reservoir: How low can it go?

The unusually low water levels in the Arrow Lakes Reservoir throughout 2023 repeatedly made the news
Stumps from the time of the creation of the Arrow Lakes Reservoir in 1968 were visible at the McDonald Creek Provincial Park beach. Photo: Betsy Kline

The unusually low water levels in the Arrow Lakes Reservoir throughout 2023 repeatedly made the news.

Jan. 1: Castlegar resident John Russell says he can only remember a few times when the water has been this low out at Scotties Marina on the Lower Arrow Lake. This week when Russell went out to his boat house at the deep side of the marina and turned on his depth finder, the reading came back at six metres.

His spot usually reads about 21 metres.

On Jan. 7, the Arrow Lakes Reservoir is sitting at an elevation of 424.08 metres at the Fauquier gauge. This is only the third time in the last 22 years that the reservoir has been that low.

Russell is lucky his boat house is out in the deeper water.

At the shoreline a sail boat tilts sideways, completely resting on dry ground. A houseboat has also run aground. Rows of the marina’s docks are completely out of the water as is the boat-in gas pump dock.

Jan. 23: After reaching lows usually seen once a decade, the Arrow Lakes Reservoir has begun to refill. BC Hydro says the Arrow Lakes likely reached the minimum elevation for this winter on Jan. 9 when it hit 423.9 metres.

On Jan. 23, the reservoir was at 425.2 metres.

The normal minimum and maximum water license levels for Arrow Lakes Reservoir are 420 metres and 440.1 metres. This is the full range of storage required under the Columbia River Treaty (7.1 million acre feet).

June 23: The Arrow Lakes Reservoir reached its maximum level for the year at 439.06 metres (1440.5 feet). That is 3.5 feet from full.

July: After a dry spring, BC Hydro says it is now projecting lower reservoir levels in many areas of the province including the Arrow Lakes.

Conditions have culminated after sustained periods of dry weather commencing in the fall of 2022, below average snowpack this winter in most of BC Hydro’s basins, lower spring and summer precipitation, and higher energy demand due to atypical weather patterns.

On July 28, Arrow Lakes Reservoir water levels were at 432.6 metres (1,419.3 feet). The levels are expected to remain above the Arrow Lakes Reservoir water license minimum level of 420 metres (1,378 feet).

August: The Arrow Lakes Reservoir has continued to drop as BC Hydro forecasted back in July.

The forecast runoff for 2023 is 76 per cent of normal, the third driest year since 1949.

On Aug. 21, the Arrow Lakes Reservoir was at 427.2 metres (1401.5 feet) measured at the Fauquier gauge. The reservoir drafted by 1.59 metres (5.2 feet) in the past week.

August: Black Press Media took a trip to Nakusp in late August to hear from the people of Nakusp after they reached out to us to help their voices be heard. A gathering was held at the gazebo near the waterfront on Aug. 28, and more than 30 residents of the Arrow Lakes were in attendance.

At first glance, it’s not difficult to figure out why they’re upset. Ragged beaches stretch out for much longer than they should during the summer, unearthing debris, destitute buildings, and most alarmingly, dead fish. The people in the Arrow Lakes region are used to low water levels, but not this low during the summer. According to residents, they’re used to seeing these kinds of water levels in February, not August when their boats are still in the water.

Residents in Nakusp have documented a number of pools where they have found dead fish, beached by a sudden and drastic shift in the water level.

Near Burton, Rachel Elliot photographed a number of white sturgeon that had perished in a small pool of water.

In some places, people who used to have lakefront property now have to walk more than a kilometre to touch the water – a far cry from the lake access they expected when they purchased their property.

September: Water levels in the Arrow Lakes Reservoir will continue to drop through September according to BC Hydro’s fall update. The lack of rain over the course of 2023 is blamed as a major contributing factor. Many residents along the reservoir are beginning to raise concerns about fish and the Kokanee spawning season.

BC Hydro says that fish stranding is not that uncommon and can happen in any year.

“We recognize that the impacts are more significant under the current conditions,” said Hydro spokesperson Mary Anne Coules.

“We are documenting all reports of fish stranding on Arrow Lakes Reservoir during this year’s drought conditions, and we have identified high priority sites.”

On Sept. 7, Arrow Lakes Reservoir levels were 426.7 metres.

September: BC Hydro says it is increasing fish mitigation efforts in response to the severe drought in the Arrow Lakes region. With water levels on the Arrow Lakes Reservoir well below normal for the past several months, concerns for fish have increased.

“While protecting wildlife and the environment is a top priority, the impacts of the severe drought have resulted in stranded fish and mortalities,” acknowledged BC Hydro in a statement released Sept. 15. “We want the community to know we are taking this extremely seriously.”

As of September, BC Hydro reported returning over 36,000 sucker, dace, pikeminnow, redside shiner and sculpins to the water.

September: Kathy Eichenberger, executive director Columbia River Treaty, and B.C. lead of the Canadian Negotiation Delegation says water levels in the Arrow Lakes Reservoir will be part of negotiations on the new Columbia River Treaty.

“I understand how frustrating it is to know things cannot change immediately, but I want to make it clear that the Canadian negotiating team is doing everything it can to ensure a modernized treaty better supports the people, communities and ecosystems of the basin and mitigates situations like the one we are seeing at Arrow Lakes Reservoir in the future.”

October: With water levels in the Arrow Lakes Reservoir reaching low levels usually only seen in the winter when snow blankets the shoreline, historic structures and materials from the time before the creation of the reservoir are far more noticeable than usual.

In response, BC Hydro is working on an inventory of these materials that include old building foundations, rusted metal and broken glass.

BC Hydro says that once the inventory has been completed, the structures and materials will be assessed based on environmental considerations, archaeological and heritage values, accessibility, and public safety concerns to determine if they should be removed or altered or if they should remain untouched.

December: As of Dec. 15, Arrow Lakes Reservoir was at 423.54 metres (1389.6 feet). The reservoir is forecast to reach 423.1 metres (1388 feet) by the end of December.

Betsy Kline

About the Author: Betsy Kline

After spending several years as a freelance writer for the Castlegar News, Betsy joined the editorial staff as a reporter in March of 2015. In 2020, she moved into the editor's position.
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