COLUMNS: Food sources at a watershed moment?

As we wait for the Fraser and its tributaries to fill with what may be one of the biggest sockeye salmon runs in recorded history ...

As we wait for the Fraser and its tributaries to fill with what may be one of the biggest sockeye salmon runs in recorded history, the successful return to their gravelly birth channels could be a difficult one.

The extended heat wave (except for a day to two of rain) over the past few weeks, and forecast to continue for a few more, may be great for us, but lousy for fish. After spending a number of years in the cool ocean, the sockeye are about to swim into warm rivers.

Many years ago one of my sons rafted down most of the Fraser in similar weather conditions, and noted dead salmon choking the back eddies of the river, killed by water too hot to support them before they could reach home spawning streams.

Whether the current weather will have an effect remains to be seen, though as of early Monday morning a more sinister threat occurred. The tailings pond of Mount Polley mine, southeast of Quesnel, breached its holding berm, sending several millions of cubic metres of toxic water and materials into a stream which feeds Quesnel Lake which, of course, flows eventually into the Fraser.

While at this writing it’s too early to determine the severity of contamination, suffice to say residents in the vicinity have been told not to drink the water, or even bathe in it.

No one I guess, can tell the bears, deer and other wildlife about the possible dangers.

As for the salmon that will make it into Quesnel Lake which, with its tributaries, is apparently responsible for about a quarter of the province’s sockeye production, no one will know until water quality/contamination levels are determined if the water toxicity is disastrous.

Since these salmon will absorb and concentrate any toxins, there is also a strong probability they will pass the contamination up the food chain as bears, eagles and other creatures feast on their carcasses when they expire after spawning.

It will be interesting, over the coming days, to hear if this calamity will become a major catastrophe, and what if anything can be done to remediate what was, until now, a pristine wilderness vital not only to salmon rearing, but myriad other wildlife.

In the meantime, while we struggle to keep our waters clean, folks and farmers well to the south of us are facing a different crisis. In the Central Valley of California, which is responsible for virtually all the vegetables and fruit we see in our grocery stores every winter, crops are dying for lack of water. California is in its third year of severe drought.

If you think the price of beef is rising, just wait until you pick up a head of fresh lettuce in December.

About 10 per cent of California’s huge agricultural production is shipped to Canada, and with all those veggies requiring large and expensive quantities of water to grow, consumer costs are expected to skyrocket.

A head of lettuce apparently, is about 95 per cent water; the fine wine from California’s Napa Valley even more.

Without adequate water, Americans may decide to keep their remaining food production at home, or greatly increase prices for export products.

Water is a precious bounty, and we are so dependent upon it, whether it is a potentially devastating environmental calamity in B.C., or a dire dearth down south.

Hopefully, what just happened near Quesnel Lake can be contained and remediated with no ill effects.

What can’t be changed without, as the saying goes, an “Act of God” is the lack of water in one of the world’s principal growing areas.

May we realize both.

markrushton@abbynews.com