It's spring, but B.C. already sounds drought alarms; fish, water, fire threats

VICTORIA — The likelihood of a drought in British Columbia is rising as warm weather melts away what's left of a minuscule mountain snow pack and spring rains fail to appear, say provincial wildfire and forecast experts.

Drought level warnings for Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and B.C.'s northeast have already increased to the voluntary water-restrictions stage, and Dave Campbell, head of the B.C. River Forecast Centre, said Tuesday the current forecast points to provincewide drought conditions in the coming weeks.

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"It's hard to predict whether we're going to get much rain or not and that's going to be the wild card," said Campbell. "But I think right now we're at a stage of seeing there certainly is a lot of increased risk this year."

The winter snow packs this spring are half of what they would normally be and between 55 per cent and 100 per cent of the snow that feeds many of the province's waterways has already melted, he said.

If spring rains don't arrive soon, the drought conditions will increase, he said.

"To some extent, the way things are setting up, I don't think it's too early to raise some of those alarm bells," said Campbell, suggesting more use of voluntary water restrictions and communities and farmers practising conservation measures.

As of June 1, snowpack in the Upper Fraser East stood at 54 per cent and that for the Nechako basin was 19 per cent. A figure for Upper Fraser West was not avaialble.

The BC Wildfire Service has also been watching the weather, hoping rain will bring moisture to the forest floor.

"If the forecasts are correct, then we're looking at a drier than normal June, and this could result in a greater total of area burned for the season due to an earlier availability of dry fuels," said Erika Berg, a wildfire service officer in a telephone interview from Kamloops.

But she said the preliminary forecasts are not predicting the record fire seasons similar to the past two summers, where B.C. declared emergencies because out-of-control wildfires.

Last year, dry weather contributed to B.C.'s wildfire season, with more than 2,100 fires consuming about 13,000 square kilometres of forest, grassland and properties.

The latest wildfire service seasonal outlook for June forecasts busier than normal fire activity, Berg said.

Richard Kennett, a co-owner of Bucky's Sports Shop in Duncan, B.C., said the dry spring and the prospect of prolonged hot days has him worried.

He said he's concerned vital salmon spawning tributaries will dry up, causing a severe blow to the vulnerable fish stocks.

"The streams are like they were in August of last year," Kennett said. "It's already low. The water is at summer levels."

He said the Duncan area's Cowichan River system is a major salmon-bearing waterway.

"The alarm bell that I'm getting is the salmon could be stuck out in the bay and not able to get up the river," said Kennett. "They won't be able to spawn."

Federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson introduced strict chinook salmon fishing closures earlier this year in an effort to ensure more fish are able to get to their spawning grounds. The restrictions include a catch-and-release only fishery until at least mid July on many parts of Vancouver Island.

Kennett said chinook salmon returns to Duncan-area streams and rivers have been strong for the past five years, but a drought poses a major threat.

Chinook salmon are the primary food source of the threatened southern resident killer whales.

Campbell said low water levels and rising river and stream temperatures will pose significant threats to fish stocks.

"Certainly, we do see in years where we have low flow that there can be quite a lot of fish mortality."

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