The Okanagan basin is a watershed. A watershed is an area of land in which all of the water that flows over and through it has the same end point. No matter where a drop of water falls in a watershed, it ends up in the same place.
In the Okanagan, water begins as snow and rain, mostly in cnxaʔcnitkʷs təl tqalqaltikn (the upper watershed). It flows through cuʔcuʔwixaʔ (streams), over land and underground, sometimes stopping for a rest in kəɬq’ʷəsq’əstam (wetlands). This water will either evaporate, or carry on to the six main lakes in the ntx̌ʷitkʷ (valley bottom). From there, it keeps flowing south to q̓awsitkʷ (Okanagan River).
A great sheet of ice once covered the Okanagan Valley. Slowly it began to melt, and by 10,000 years ago it was gone. Way back then, the syilx (Okanagan) people were already living here.
The syilx people have lived here since time immemorial.Their laws and interactions with the land and nature have allowed the syilx people to become expert knowledge holders of the territory.
Today, many people live in the Okanagan Valley, from all different backgrounds. Some of us have lived here for a while. Some are pretty new. Regardless of when we came, every one of us drinks Okanagan water. Every one of us bathes in Okanagan water. Some of us swim in the lakes and fish in the rivers. Some of us pray at water’s edge. We know a thing or two about our water. We have some great stories!
Water is everywhere in the Okanagan. It’s on the ground, in the ground, in plants, our bodies, the air.
Water connects everything.Water connects space. It is constantly moving through the watershed, from one place to another, and from one state to another—water, ice, snow or water vapour. People also move water. We divert it from its natural course—to drink, water our plants, prevent flooding.
Water connects time. There is no new water in the world. It just cycles through different forms. The water you drank today has been here since before the dinosaurs roamed. However, even though we have the same amount of water as long ago, we don’t necessarily have the same amount of clean or accessible water.
Water connects creatures. All of life depends on water—clean and healthy water. If water is polluted or depleted, creatures suffer. If we are kind to our water, we are kind to ourselves.
Click on the images to learn more about each zone
Although water is everywhere, the Okanagan is the most water scarce region in Canada. There is less water available per person here than anywhere else in the country.
How can that be?
Most of the water in the Okanagan is old. The lakes were formed when that giant ice sheet melted all of those years ago. Some water stayed in the lakes. The rest slowly sank into the ground. There isn’t very much “new” water here - water that falls as rain or snow. So, if we use too much of it, we could be in trouble. It looks like there’s a lot of water in our lakes, but in fact they are replenished very slowly.
Think of it like this: the lakes are deep – up to 200m in some places. The thing is, only 1.5m of new water goes into the lakes each year. Of that, about 90cm evaporates. That leaves 60cm. Of that 60cm, 45cm is licensed to cities, farmers and industry for use.
So, we only have 15cm of water left in our lakes each year. 15cm for birds and wildlife. 15cm for us to play in. 15cm left for a growing population.
How do we not just take water, but give back as well? How do we share our water with each other, with the land, and with all of the Okanagan’s creatures?
The Okanagan watershed has changed quite a bit in 10,000 years.
Most of that change has come in the last 200 years. More specifically, the last 50 years. It didn’t change all on its own, though. Most change has been caused by people. Some people more than others. Even though our watershed is different than it used to be, some of us don’t even realize that things have changed. Or, we forget how it was before. Some of our elders remember how it used to be.
There is enough water in the Okanagan, but maybe not for all the things we want to use it for.
Us humans, we like to drink water. We like to bathe in it, and cook with it. Some of us use it to water our lawns and gardens, sometimes even our driveways. Some of us use it to irrigate our orchards, our vineyards, the grass our cows eat. We use water to take away our waste. We use it to generate hydroelectricity to power our homes. Sometimes, we try to control our water so it doesn’t flood our homes and get too messy. So, we dam our rivers and channelize our streams.
We’re not the only ones who need water, though. The turtles, the frogs, the sacred salmon--they all need water, too. All of the animals and plants do.
“In the beginning, there is nothing but water and darkness.”
— Harry Robinson, syilx creation story
“We transform the world, but we don’t remember it.”
— Dr. Daniel Pauly on “shifting baseline syndrome”
Once it reaches the valley bottom, surface water in the Okanagan flows from north to south. It flows southward through a chain of lakes, eventually ending up in the Okanagan River. The Okanagan River carries water to the Columbia River, which in turn flows out to sea.
The Okanagan River connects the Okanagan to other waters.
The Okanagan River is a passageway. It begins at the southern end of Okanagan Lake and flows through Skaha, Vaseux and Osoyoos Lakes. After leaving Osoyoos Lake, it continues to flow south through Washington, where it joins the Columbia River. The Columbia River continues another 1,000km, through Washington and Oregon states, until it meets the Pacific Ocean.
Sockeye and Chinook salmon swim all the way from the Okanagan to the Pacific Ocean, and back again.
After the long journey, salmon lay their eggs, giving life to a new generation. It’s not so easy for the salmon to get to the Okanagan nowadays. A series of dams that were built on the Columbia and the Okanagan Rivers has made it hard—sometimes impossible—for fish to pass. Millions of sockeye salmon used to come to the Okanagan annually to spawn. Today, there are way less than there used to be.
The Okanagan River, like all natural bodies of water, is subject to flooding. Flooding can cause a river to change its course. This happened often to the Okanagan River. In the springtime, the rushing melt water cut through the bends in the river, making new channels. The bend where the river used to flow is called an oxbow lake.
Oxbows provide critical habitat for a number of creatures, including many endangered species.Rivers are always flowing and changing their courses over time. In the 1950s, some people decided they didn’t like it when Okanagan River flooded, so they changed its course. They straightened and channelized it, cutting off the oxbows lakes from the main channel. Today, only 14% (4.9km) of the river remains in a natural or semi-natural state.
The settlers preferred to stay in one place. The syilx people moved according to the seasons. In the springtime, when the river was prone to flooding, they moved up into the mountains. Food was more abundant there, and it was cooler during the hot summer. In the late summer, salmon returned to the Okanagan River, and the syilx people came back down to the valley bottom. They preserved the salmon, and had food to last throughout the winter.
When the river was channelized, the majority of the natural areas along its banks were destroyed. Fish and wildlife habitats were lost.Salmon had few safe places to lay their eggs, and their populations plummeted. The syilx people, who depend on salmon for food, trading, and spiritual purposes, suffered greatly.
Much of the Okanagan River has been lost due to human meddling. But we are nimble; we can change. We can bring the river back.
The Okanagan River Restoration Initiative (ORRI) is a multi-partner project that is working to restore parts of the river to its natural condition.It is informed by science and traditional ecological knowledge of the syilx people. ORRI involves restoring meanders in the river, creating side channels, and replanting trees and plants along the riverside. The project will have many benefits. It will create new habitat for fish and wildlife, help endangered species, purify the water in the river, and reduce flooding.
If we honour the salmon and give thanks to them, they may be compelled to continue to come back to the Okanagan River. The syilx people honour and give thanks to the salmon through song and prayer.
snx̌aʔiwləm means to honour the sacredness of the river.Ceremony plays an important role in the fisheries management practices of the syilx people. It represents their dependence on salmon and emphasizes the reciprocal relationship they have with the natural world. The syilx people believe that they have a responsibility to take care of their ancestral lands, the tmxʷu̓laʔxʷ, and all life forms, the timxʷ.
sc̓win, or sockeye salmon, are pretty incredible creatures. Born in freshwater, the juvenile salmon stay in lakes for their first year, or sometimes longer. When they are strong enough, they make the long journey to the sea. They live their adult lives in the ocean, and at about four years of age, they return to the same place they were born. That’s an upstream swim that can be thousands of kilometers long! Here, they lay their eggs, then die, leaving the water to the next generation.
Salmon are the biological foundation of river ecosystems.Over 50 species of mammals, birds, and fish feed on salmon eggs, juveniles and adults. Salmon provide nutrients to animals and surrounding ecosystems, which helps our forests to flourish. Sockeye salmon aren’t nearly as abundant in the Okanagan River as they used to be.
When the Okanagan River was channelized, it didn’t just affect fish and wildlife.
The changes rippled through the ecosystem, impacting many lives. Many wetlands around the river were lost, and the land which once held onto moisture became much drier. Hayfields dried up, and community members who depended on income from ranching had to find other work.
When the land became drier after the Okanagan River was channelized, the farmers and ranchers that remained grew more dependent on other water sources for irrigation. They diverted water from surrounding streams, like Shingle and Trout Creeks, which in turn affected the people and animals that relied on those streams.
“Green is the colour of drought”
- Harold Rhenish, Okanagan writer
The valley bottom wasn’t always as lush and green as it is today.
Once upon a time, scattered Ponderosa Pine trees and bunchgrass dominated this environment. Bunch grass is greenish-yellow in the spring, but by July, when there is less rain, it goes dormant and loses its green tinge. Many years ago, in the late summer and fall, the valley bottom looked like fields of gold waving in the sunlight.
With the introduction of large-scale irrigation systems in the early twentieth century, low elevation grasslands were transformed into a green oasis of orchards, ground crops and residential properties.
The first European settlers, mainly ranchers, created a few small irrigation systems by diverting water from local creeks to nearby hay fields. The very first orchards were also irrigated this way.
By the early 1900s, land development companies built dams and reservoirs in the upper watershed to bring large amounts of water to lands that did not have nearby water sources for irrigation. Water stored in mountain reservoirs was diverted to these new agricultural lands throughout the summer using gravity-fed systems such as a combination of concrete canals, flumes, wooden stave pipes, siphons and earth ditches.
Places like Glenmore, previously known to locals as Starvation Flats, was once so dry and dusty that most farming would have been impossible.
After irrigation systems were installed, Glenmore and other arid areas became agricultural hotspots. By the first World War, 40,000 acres of land between Vernon and Osoyoos were irrigated.
By 1920, when all the best farming land had been sold, private irrigation systems were falling into disrepair and farmers began lobbying the BC government for the right to manage water.
Publicly managed Irrigation Districts were quickly established throughout the Okanagan.
Irrigation Districts came to Vernon, Glenmore, South East Kelowna, Black Mountain, Naramata, Kaleden and elsewhere. Municipal systems were put in place in Penticton and the South Okanagan. Eventually, many of these irrigation systems began to supply drinking water to the public as well. A huge network of pipes was constructed to bring water to residential and commercial properties.
Irrigation has changed a lot over the years. Today, we don’t use canals and flumes so much as sprinklers and drip irrigation systems. However, over a century of large-scale irrigation has certainly changed our valley bottom. Vineyards are now as common as orchards, and golf courses have also been added to the mix.
Irrigation for agriculture, lawns and gardens uses a lot of water—almost 80% of all the water we use in the Okanagan
Between a growing population and climate change, our water supply will get more strained. Climate change in the Okanagan will mean warmer temperatures, less snow in the winter, and snow melting sooner in the spring. That means less snowmelt to fill our reservoirs. And with longer summers, we could begin running out of water in September. In a drought year, we could run out even sooner. We have been irrigating the valley bottom for so long now, we have forgotten that it didn’t always look like this!
Using less water for irrigation is one of the best ways we can give back to water and other species. The valley bottom does not have to be this green to be beautiful.
After agriculture, outdoor domestic water use consumes the most water in the Okanagan. Twenty-four percent of all water used in the valley goes to outdoor uses like watering our yards, washing our cars, and filling our pools.
Some of the plants and the turf grass we use on our properties need a lot of water to survive. They are not the best choice for the dry Okanagan valley bottom.
Xeriscaping is a method of landscaping that requires much less water than conventional landscaping. It not only conserves water but also saves time and money and creates habitat for creatures like birds, bees and butterflies.
Xeriscaped lands include drought tolerant plants, like native species growing in natural areas of the Okanagan. These native plants are beautiful.
The Okanagan Xeriscape Association provides support to residents who would like to learn more about xeriscaping.
We would like to thank indigenous scholar Dr. Marlowe Sam for permission to use the quotations featured in this panel. The quotations are taken from interviews he conducted in 2008 as part of his Master’s research project at UBC Okanagan. Dr. Sam’s thesis is entitled Okanagan Water Systems: An Historical Retrospect Of Control, Domination And Change. He completed his MA degree in 2008 under the supervision of Dr. John Wagner. His study documents the many ways in which natural water systems throughout the Columbia Basin, in both Canada and the US, have been altered in ways that compromise the ability of syilx communities to maintain a sustainable and harmonious relationship with their environment. These changes began in the colonial period and continue into the present and include the building of dams, irrigation diversions, the channelization of rivers, and the destruction of wetlands. The interviews featured here were conducted with Dr. Jeannette Armstrong and Richard Armstrong and we would also like to thank them for their permission to use these materials. In these interviews they describe the changes they have witnessed first hand to Shingle Creek where it flows past their homes on the Penticton Indian Reserve.
“I remember when the cottonwoods were cut down, the water level went down. There was a lake — like a wetlands — now a dry lake. The water levels were never that high since then. It dropped so low the sub-soil irrigation doesn’t happen now.
So the land dried up and other grasses came in. Not a grass from here, it would cut holes in root crops. It just invaded everywhere. It chokes out everything else, and all the natural grasses we knew are not here anymore. There are lots of plants and animals missing — ground squirrel, cottontail, sxwupxwup (flying squirrel) . Our Indian rhubarb — none. It has a lot to do with clearing the trees and stopping the beavers from making their dams. It' has an impact on those creatures coming back."
"Yes, the water even goes dry sometimes in august. When I was growing up the water never went dry. The reason the water goes dry is because there's no more trees to hold the snow pack until late. Now it all melts in one big rush and it's gone.”
If we can get water from next door in the bottle — and it is that easy to get water — that tells me I don't have to give a damn about that creek. I don't have to worry about how dirty it gets. I can always get it from the store and its clean even though it is dead water."
"We do ceremonies called sc’əc’kʕasxnm. It's the clacking
of the rocks for the spawing of the Kokanee."
"That's a sound that can be heard all the way to the ocean, to the mountain
that sound travels and the Kikinee can hear that."
There's been a lot of changes, as far back as I can remember. I remember when i was just a little kid there were lots of fish in the creeks. I remember, there were lots of lynx, bobcats, bears.
The earliest thing i can remember about the riparian zones is that there was lots of brush cottonwood, birch and willow.”
“Blue Grouse. Hundreds in a flock, literally. When they’d fly you’d hear thunder. That’s how loud they’d be.”
Black bears down low, i remember the skunks... and the porcupines... not seen in twenty-five years, there was lots of beaver, lots of otter... now you hardly ever see those animals.
Beavers are like engineers they know where to make a dam. Like engineers they look at the land and say this is where we can put our work .
I used to swim in the big pools behind the beaver dams —it was spectacular.”
Jeannette Armstrong Protecting Mountain Beaver Dams
"And that was the kind of dam that our people looked at for protecting a watershed . . . even if there was a mountain on both sides that had lots of clay running into the water and lots of mud running into that pond, by the time it comes out of that pond it's clean water and if there's two or three of those dams before it gets down, you could drink the water really good clear water"
The snow melts in the spring and early summer months. A trickle joins up with another trickle. A small stream is formed. The stream meets up with a larger stream. The creek winds its way down to the lakes at the valley bottom.
Streams connect our landscape.
There are many creeks, or streams, in the Okanagan basin. They wind through forests, grasslands, farmers’ fields and cities, carrying rain and snowmelt from the upper watershed down to the valley bottom.
Where there are streams, there is life of all kinds.A variety of creatures—kokanee, muskrats, birds and insects—make their homes in and around streams. Lush green trees and plants grow in the wet environments that surround them—plants like cottonwood trees, dogwood trees, snowberry bushes, and more.
Streams give life to these plants, but the plants also help the streams. Plants help to purify water by filtering pollutants. They can prevent flooding by absorbing excess water. Most of the water in our streams eventually ends up in the lakes—where we swim, fish, and get much of our drinking water. Ensuring there are healthy strips of trees and plants (called riparian buffer zones) around our streams helps keep water healthy in the Okanagan.
Some creeks carry small trickles of water. Others carry large volumes. Mission Creek in Kelowna is the largest stream in the Okanagan. It carries 24% of all “new water” that finds its way into the lakes each year. Streams tend to rush in the spring as the snow melts, and flow gently (or not at all) in the summer and fall.
Groundwater as well as surface water contributes to a stream’s flow.
In fact, once the snow melts and the rainy season is over, most of the water in our streams comes from groundwater.
Ground and surface water are always interacting, and what we do to one affects the other. Drawing groundwater near a stream can impact the flow of a stream, and the creatures in it.
A stream winds its way through the landscape, from mountaintop to valley bottom, and life abounds all around it.
Go and observe all the different kinds of plants along our streams, or the diversity of birds that flutter about.
Walk with the creek, maybe along the Mission Creek greenway, and notice the landscapes it passes through. This is the gift of our streams.
When streams are altered, they lose some of their natural function. Unaltered, they provide habitat for fish and wildlife, purify water, bring moisture and nutrients to the surrounding land.
We can give back to streams by planning responsibly, retaining natural features and restoring the natural features we’ve altered.
The Mission Creek Restoration Initiative is helping to bring back fish and wildlife. Many people and organizations from across the Okanagan are working to put meanders back in the creek, as it was before it was straightened. This will help to regenerate kəkn̓i for future generations.
kəkn̓i, or kokanee salmon, are little red fish found throughout the Okanagan. They are related to sockeye salmon, but they do not swim out to sea after they are born. They are landlocked and live most of their lives in the lakes. Some kokanee spawn along the lakeshores, and some go to streams to spawn. Kokanee have long been a food pillar for the syilx people.
However, dyking and damming creeks has dramatically affected kəkn̓i stocks.
In the 1940s, it was estimated that annual kokanee stocks were about one million. In 1996, that number was 30,000, and in 2010 it was down to 16,000.
Water quality in streams can become degraded when we remove the plants and trees around them. Pollution from human activities like farming, driving cars and using pesticides on our lawns, more easily finds its way into the streams.
Creatures that live in the stream are affected by declining water quality.
For example, benthic invertebrates are tiny organisms that live in streams and other bodies of water. Most are the larvae of insects, like dragonflies and mayflies. They play an important role in aquatic ecosystems—breaking down organic debris, and becoming food for birds and amphibians. You can often find them on the underside of rocks or logs in creeks.
You might not have ever noticed them, but we know that when our streams are healthy, there are lots of benthic invertebrates, or acnakʷakʷtitakʷ. When streams aren’t healthy, they are few and far between.
Streams have always flooded. That’s what they do. Flooding carries water and nutrients to the nearby lands.
The Okanagan is no stranger to flooding. It used to happen all the time.
The syilx people recognized the importance of a meandering waterbody and learned to work with the ebb and flow of streams. Some settlers didn’t like the flooding. They dredged the streams to make them deeper, built walls around them, and straightened their meanders.
During the 1950s, Mission Creek was straightened in an attempt to stop flooding of the surrounding agricultural lands. Its length was reduced from 30 to just 11 kilometers.
Our streams flood less now, but sometimes they still flood.
All of the new water in our watershed—from Armstrong to Osoyoos—falls as rain or snow. Most of it falls in the upper watershed, high up in these rolling mountains, thickly forested with spruce trees, Douglas fir, even some cedars. This is cnxaʔcnitkʷs (first waters beginning) təl tqalqaltikn (from the mountain tops).
This is the sacred headwaters.
Over 25% of the water in our watershed falls as snow.
Most of the snow falls high in the mountains that surround the valley, above 1400m in altitude.
The valley bottom is 1000m away, at an altitude of about 340m.
The snow starts to fall in the autumn, and keeps falling until spring. Then, it slowly begins to melt. Lately, especially in the last two years, our snow has been melting faster than usual. Even though we had a greater than average snowfall in the winter of 2016, it melted much earlier in the season that it normally does.
When snow melts before we are ready, there can be consequences.
When the snow begins to melt in the springtime, some of it is caught in drinking water reservoirs.
These reservoirs are mountain lakes with dams built around them, that allow us to hold onto water longer. The reservoirs in the upper watershed slowly release water throughout the year to the thirsty people living below.
The reservoirs fill up in the spring. When the snow melts on a normal schedule, levels rise gradually, and are topped up by rain in the early summer. As we use water throughout the year, the reservoirs draw down slowly.
When the snow melts quickly, there can be too much water at once, and drinking water reservoirs overflow. If they overflow, water from snowmelt flows down into the valley and we can’t hold onto it for the hot, dry summer.
In the most sustainable societies in the world, people practice relations of reciprocity with one another and with other species. The idea is “if you help me, I help you in equal measure.”
The idea of reciprocity can be applied to water.
For example, if we are wise and thoughtful about the way we cut down trees, they will continue to replenish themselves. The mountain water on which the trees rely will stay in good health, as will the countless other species that rely on that water. We can make sure we protect parts of the forest around mountain watercourses, and where there is rich wildlife habitat.
We can also make it easier for wildlife to move about. For example, the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program is giving back by promoting habitat connectivity corridors in the Okanagan. This means ensuring there are continuous strips of permeable land for animals to pass through.
Far up, away from the bustle of the cities, the wind whistles through the trees and a chorus of birds offers a song. In the wintertime, you can stay atop the deep, powdery snow that falls up here if you have the right footwear.
People have been coming up here for a long time to witness this beauty and all the upper watershed has to offer.
Most logging happens in the upper watershed.
Trees are cut down to make lumber, which gives us wood to build with. Sometimes, cutting down trees impacts water and animals. Trees help to stabilize the soil, which helps to reduce erosion and keep dirt and debris out of our streams. Too much logging can cause our streams to be murky, making it easier for bacteria and viruses to hide.
Too much logging can also damage the habitat of the creatures that call the upper watershed home. This may endanger wildlife populations.
The mountain beaver, or stunx, was once a familiar face in the upper watershed.
But forestry and urbanization have destroyed much of its habitat. The mountain beaver is now an endangered species. Their range in BC has shrunk by about 30% in the past 50 years. Mountain beavers are actually not beavers, but got their name because they gnaw on bark and cut the limbs off trees like beavers do. These creatures have deep roots in the Okanagan. They are the most ancient rodent in the world today. Ancestors of the mountain beaver roamed the earth 25 million years ago.
The syilx people have always gone to the upper watershed for serenity, cleansing, healing and sustenance. The pure mountain waters have long been a source of nourishment and growth. The mountains have also been generous with food and fur. Hunting and trapping in the mountains are age-old practices, and the syilx people continue to do them today. These are ways to connect with, and know, the land and animals.
Trapping can also help to generate knowledge to protect endangered species.
The Derickson Family Trap Line, which was established in 1926, is helping to collect data about the lynx, or wa̓pwpxn. Ray Derickson has been working with the Okanagan Nation Alliance’s Natural Resource Committee to research this wildcat, which is listed as a threatened species in nearby Washington State.
As water continues on its journey, it eventually makes its way down to the bottom of the valley. After passing through forests, grasslands, wetlands, farmers’ fields, recreation fields and cities, some of the water will settle into the lakes at the lowest point of the valley.
The valley bottom is where most of us live.
It’s no surprise that people like to settle in the valley bottom. It’s warmer down here, especially during winter, and there are six beautiful lakes that stretch from the north to the south where we can swim, fish and play. The lakes also give us easily accessible drinking water.
Despite its many lakes, the valley bottom is the driest part of the Okanagan.
Down here, where most people live, is where the least amount of precipitation falls. That means that in order to have green lawns and lush orchards, we have to use quite a lot of water. On average, just counting household use, each of us in the Okanagan Valley uses 675 liters per day. That’s more than twice the national average. In the driest months we average over 1000 liters per person, per day. In many countries in Europe, by comparison, people use one-third the amount of water as us!
The population of the Okanagan has been steadily growing for a long time. When people come from other places, sometimes they bring things that remind them of home. People brought all kinds of plants to the Okanagan’s valley bottom that don’t naturally grow here—plants like thirsty cedar trees, which need a lot of water to survive.
Plants or animals from elsewhere can cause a lot of harm to the native environment. These are called invasive species. People may introduce invasive species on purpose or by accident. Milfoil, an aquatic plant from Eurasia, is an example of an invasive species that was accidentally brought to the Okanagan by commercial ships. Milfoil now grows in all of our valley bottom lakes, and it takes a lot of effort and money to remove it.
We need to be careful not to introduce more invasive species that could cause damage. Zebra and quagga mussels are tiny freshwater mussels that come from Europe, and are not yet in the Okanagan.
If invasive mussels are introduced to the Okanagan, there could be big consequences to our environment and economy.
These tiny mussels can hide in boats that have been in infested waters. If boats are not properly cleaned they can carry the mussels to other bodies of water. Invasive mussels were first discovered in Lake Winnipeg in 2013, and have since caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, and caused near ecosystem collapse.
Water is fun! We like to play near the water, in the water, on the water.
Water is the destination—it’s where we want to be!
Our waters are what make the Okanagan a pretty incredible place. We boat, paddle, sail, fish, swim. Tourists come from all over the world to play in Okanagan waters. Some of them love it so much they decide to stay here, and become part of our community. Lakeside festivals are a staple of Okanagan living. The Regatta in Kelowna was an annual community event for decades. There was rowing, synchronized swimming, diving, water sports—all kinds of fun things! It was cancelled in 1986, after some poor shows of public behaviour. Recent festivals like Wakefest and Centre of Gravity carry on this lakeside tradition.
People celebrate and connect with the water in many different ways.
For example, the syilx people connect with water by canoeing. In 2001, the syilx nation coordinated a Unity Trek, travelling with canoes on the water and by horseback on land. The trip was an affirmation of the intrinsic rights and responsibilities the syilx people have to siwɬkʷ (water), their relationship with it, and visions of it for the future. Each community carved and paddled a traditional dugout canoe made from cottonwood trees, or mulx. Since 2001, there have been many canoe journeys on the water.
Ogopogo is a popular icon in the Okanagan.
For the syilx people it is the spirit of the lake, nx̌aʔx̌ʔitkʷ.
It represents the sacredness of water, and the connection of all creatures and beings to water.
Building cities often means that natural areas get replaced by roads, buildings or other infrastructure. Because we’ve built our cities in the valley bottom, many of the natural areas here have been deeply affected by human activity. Between 1938 and 2005, up to 90% of the natural areas in the valley bottom of the Okanagan have been impacted, converted or destroyed. Many of the plants and creatures that used to live here have lost their homes
Species like the Western rattlesnake are threatened because of habitat loss.
Not everyone feels deeply for the rattlesnake, which shares our dry, valley bottom home. Some people kill them—either because they are scared of them, or for sport. Although rattlesnakes are venomous, they are rarely deadly. They tend to be quite shy and retreat when approachedby people. If we are careful, we need not fear the rattlesnake. According to the syilx people, the rattlesnake, or x̌aʔx̌ʔu̓laʔxʷ, is the spirit of the land.
he way we plan our cities has a big impact on the environment.
Local governments have an important role to play. They can regulate land use, manage development to limit sprawl into natural areas, encourage landowners to preserve wild areas on their properties, and more. When planning our cities, keeping habitat conservation and connectivity in mind helps to ensure that we are kinder to the creatures we share our land and water with.
As water winds its way down the valley from on high, through streams, over land and underground to valley bottom, sometimes it will stop for a rest in a wetland. This is where land and water meet. These humble ecosystems have not always been appreciated.
Wetlands are unique and important environments.
Wetlands are exactly that: wet lands. They are areas that are covered with water for all or part of the year. They are areas flooded by ground or surface water. Ponds, marshes, swamps and bogs—these are all wetlands.
Wetlands are incredibly intricate and diverse ecosystems that have many functions.
They protect us in many ways: from water pollution by cleaning our water, from flooding by soaking up excess water and also from drought by holding onto water when conditions are dry. They protect us from climate change by reducing greenhouse gases, and they provide habitat for hundreds of species. Our Okanagan wetlands have one of the highest concentration of rare species in all of Canada.
Wetlands are places to play, learn and explore. They are destinations for hiking, hunting, birdwatching, canoeing, photography and more. Wetlands are pretty special.
Wetlands like valleys. All that water that flows from higher up easily settles in them. People also like to settle in valleys. The syilx people used to move between valley bottom and mountaintop according to the season. They moved according to the flow of nature.
Settlers wanted to stay in the valley bottom. But, it’s not so easy to build a house or grow wheat on a wetland. So they drained the water out of them, and filled them in with land.
We have lost 84% of wetlands in the Okanagan Valley.
Did you know that most of downtown Kelowna was once a wetland? When the lakes and streams flooded, water would settle there. Now, just a small fraction of the Okanagan’s wetlands remain. That means many creatures—salamanders, Great Basin spadefoot toads, Western painted turtles—have lost their homes. All of these are now endangered species.
The Okanagan is a dry place, and the drier a region is, the more important its wetlands are. But, they are under pressure as our population grows and we look for places to expand our cities.
Wetlands are the most biodiverse ecosystems in the Okanagan. Many creatures call them home, and many of those creatures are endangered. k̕əɬcʕax̌əls, or the western painted turtle, is one of them
Western painted turtles are ancient and remarkable creatures.
Found only at low elevations in southern British Columbia, they require specific habitats where they can bury their eggs: deep ponds with loose soil near the shoreline.
Some of the traditional stories of the syilx people, captikwł, discuss the significance of k̕əɬcʕax̌əls, In these captikwł, the western painted turtle embodies leadership qualities.
We can follow their lead, and look after our wetlands.
Wetlands sometimes get a bad rap. Think of all of those movies about scary swamp creatures.
Instead of leaving them in their natural state, at times, we have tried to fill in wetlands and make them go away.
Or fill them with garbage, to make the garbage go away! The lakeside marsh in downtown Kelowna, next to the yacht club and Delta Grand, was used as a dump for years. All kinds of weird things have been found there.
On the other hand, some people saw the wetlands in a different light. The wetlands in Glenmore—seasonal ponds that filled with water after the snow melted—were historical bathing sites for the syilx people. But they were displaced when settlers turned the wetlands into massive reservoirs for irrigation water.
We have taken away wetlands, but we can bring them back.
At École KLO Middle School in Kelowna, students worked with their community to help restore concrete-covered wetland habitat on the school grounds.
Nearly a decade ago, students discovered eggs from the endangered western painted turtle in their long jump sand pits. The students used eco art practices to bring awareness to the species’ disappearing wetland habitat through the #DaylightingTheClassroom project. The community has collaborated to “daylight” the 200 meter portion of Fascieux Creek, which previously ran through a culvert adjacent to the playing field, and often flooded in the springtime. The creek is now a lovely, re-naturalized outdoor classroom.
k̓iłlilxʷ, or Spotted Lake, is a sacred healing place for the syilx people. This is a chief lake—a place where water, minerals and salts converge. Spotted Lake is many lakes within a lake: 365 circles of various shapes, sizes and depths. These small lakes are alkaline wetlands, that sometimes become dry by the end of summer.
k̓iłlilxʷ offers spiritual inspiration, and medicine for the sick.
The syilx people hold and care for Spotted Lake, for the benefit of all.
When you start looking at wetlands, it’s amazing what you might see. Take a trip to Armstrong wetland in the north Okanagan, Robert Lake in Kelowna, or the Osoyoos oxbows in the south Okanagan, to watch the beautiful creatures that call our wetlands home.
Observing is where science and poetry meet.
bulrushes brown and velvety
like newborn foals
but when you touch them –
like your grandmother’s chair
let’s just stay here, stop moving
avoid invasive highways,
invasive power plants,
invasive street lights
invasive purple loosestrife
choking the crap out of the bulrushes
- Nancy Holmes