Sampling water during the wet season: A new partnership with the Lower Nicola Indian Band reflects a shared interest in protecting water

Land use impacts and floods in focus by Nicola River communities.

A cool, gray sky lingered overhead, as we headed inland. Our journey took us through the Lower Fraser Valley, over the Coastal Mountains, and into the Nicola River Valley on the Thompson Plateau. Our goal this day was to team up with staff at the Lower Nicola Indian Band (LNIB), with whom we would launch a new Healthy Waters partnership. 

The Nicola River is among one of the watersheds we have been collecting samples, accompanied by Whistler/Cheakamus, Chemainus, Cowichan, Tod Creek, Hope Slough, and Anderson Creek watersheds. 

“The Lower Nicola Indian Band has forever valued their respectful and reciprocal relationship with water. In the Nlaka’pamux language, the community is called scw’exmx, or ‘the people of the creeks’  (referring to the Nlaka’pamux people of the Nicola Valley specifically) which speaks to the deep and permanent connection to water.
Today, in initiating the Healthy Waters program with Raincoast, the LNIB looks forward to better understanding the modern and industrial impacts that are affecting local rivers, so we might heal the waters, fish, the scw’exmx and the tmixw (all the land, referring to Nlaka’pamux unceded territory).”

Alex LaForce, Cumulative Effects Coordinator, LNIB.

Onsite in the Nicola Valley, we heard first-hand accounts of the devastating floods of late 2021, and the impact on homes, roads and bridges. We learned of concerns about the flooding of the municipal wastewater treatment plant in Merritt and about the safety of drinking water in the area. 

We learned about concerns about water use and water quality in a valley with extensive ranch lands. We heard about local mining activities and questions about acid mine drainage, mineral dust and blue-green algae. We saw the charred landscape from the 2021 Lytton fire, the flood-altered path of the Nicola River; the remnants of coho spawning habitats scoured out by the unrelenting torrents of water that were unleashed by the atmospheric river of late 2021. The riverscape had changed dramatically in the space of a year or two. Climate change was draping itself over top of the destructive layers of colonial history in the Nicola River Valley.

We also felt the longstanding connection to the lands and waters of the valley, and the importance of fish and fish habitat to the Nlaka’pamux and Syilx people who have thrived in these lands since time immemorial. We were awestruck by the notion that our Healthy Waters team had driven 350 km from the shores of the Salish Sea to the City of Merritt, while coho and Chinook salmon would arrive at the same destination after navigating the Fraser and Thompson rivers in search of their natal waters where they would spawn.

We were here to sample water during the wet season – the rainy season – and to learn about the health of fish habitat.

Research team taking a selfie in a forest.
The Lower Nicola Indian Band (LNIB), Nooaitch Indian Band (NIB), and Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s (RCF) Healthy Waters team came together to sample water with the common interest of understanding water quality in the Nicola River watershed. (Left to Right: Peter Ross – RCF, Jared Peterson Jr – LNIB, Kam Louis Lebourdais – NIB, Morgan Jumbo- NIB, Melissa Buck – NIB, Samantha Scott – RCF, Mac Jedrzejczyk – LNIB, and Kimberly Mike – LNIB).
Creek running through a forest.
This beautiful and relatively pristine creek is located on the unceded territory of the Nooaitch Indian Band. Our Healthy Waters team was honoured to be welcomed onto Nooaitch lands to collect a source water (upstream reference) sample.

Collecting samples from five locations

We headed down along the flood-ravaged Highway 8, as we collected our first water samples together with Aquatic Technicians of the LNIB and the Nooaitch First Nation. Our goal was to obtain samples from each of several categories of water: source water (largely upstream of human activities), river water (salmon habitat), road runoff, and tap water. 

We consider homes and communities as part of fish habitat, since our drinking water is effectively borrowed from fish habitat and then released back into fish habitat. We are intimately linked to the water cycle, and benefit from understanding our role in protecting water for salmon, whales, and people. 

A fifth category of water (marine) would be collected later, hundreds of kilometers downstream, allowing us to follow water as it flowed down from the mountains into salmon-bearing waters and on to the Pacific Ocean. 

Water sampling took place at sites of cultural and ecological value in the Nicola River watershed, and analysis will provide a snapshot of the quality of fish habitat in the watershed. As water flows downhill, through forests and grasslands, past farms, homes and industries, it receives minerals, nutrients, and soils, as well as contaminants from cars, roads, homes, industry and wastewater effluent. 

Documenting the hundreds of pollutants that enter the Nicola River is the first step to determining those activities that degrade fish habitat and how best to tackle those sources.

Peter Ross and Jared Peterson collecting a water sample on the side of a river.
Dr. Peter Ross (RCF) and Jared Peterson Jr (LNIB) work together to collect a sample from the Nicola River, just downstream of the confluence with the Coldwater River.

Water quality analysis

We conducted a three-tiered approach to water quality analysis: tier 1, which consisted of in situ measurements of temperature, pH (acidity), conductivity, turbidity and dissolved oxygen. Tier 2, which consisted of measurements of nutrients, metals and fecal coliform. Tier 3, which consisted of pesticides, hydrocarbons, surfactants, PCBs, pharmaceuticals, perfluoroalkyl substances, wastewater tracers, and bisphenols. 

Samples are currently being analyzed, and we look forward to sharing these findings in the coming months with our partners in the Nicola Valley.

Working towards a fully functioning mobile lab

As we await the results from our service labs, we are converting our recently acquired cargo van into a mobile water pollution lab that we are calling Tracker. Once ready, Tracker will allow us to work with our partners in BC watersheds, and perform water quality measurements in the field. 

This will strengthen efficiency, create training and capacity building opportunities, and deliver rapid insight into the state of fish habitat. In short, Tracker will bring our Healthy Waters program to a watershed near you.

We need your help to ensure that Tracker is ready for our next sampling season in summer of 2024. We are currently raising funds to make Tracker a reality – and every donation counts.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.