Kootenay Lake is back on tap as a potential drinking water source for Nelson.
For years the city rejected the lake because of the expense of pumping it to the reservoir at Mountain Station and because of its low quality compared to the clear mountain streams we now use.
But climate change, which is causing more frequent droughts and wildfires, has brought about a change of thinking. The city will commission an engineering study this year to determine the costs and viability of laying pipe from the lake to Mountain Station, and constructing and operating a pumping station.
At a Dec. 17 council meeting, Councillor Jesse Woodward summed up the issue with a question.
“Would we be able to continually feed the hydrants [if there were] maybe several house fires because of blown-in [wildfire] embers? Could we push enough water through so we are not just reliant on the reservoir?”
That’s part of what the new study is intended to find out.
“We are working with a gravity-fed system which is ideal, but we have millions of gallons flowing by us every day [in the lake],” Mayor John Dooley said at the meeting, adding that during the fire that destroyed the Kerr apartment building in 2011 the reduced water level at the Mountain Station reservoir was significant, due to the amount of water used to fight the fire.
“And if you look at the number of large buildings built in our community [since then], we need [a larger amount] of water for fighting fire, much more than 20-30 years ago,” Dooley said.
The city recently built a water intake on the lake near the mouth of Cottonwood Creek, but it is intended for emergency use only, and just for the lower, flatter part of the city that would not require extensive pumping.
A wildfire near the city would not only threaten homes, businesses and infrastructure, but it could endanger the water supply itself. Nelson gets its water mostly from Five Mile Creek, which originates in West Arm Provincial Park’s forests, known to be a wildfire hazard because of a decades-old build-up of dry forest fuel that is only gradually being remedied.
Water from Five Mile Creek and from Selous Creek arrives by gravity feed at the Mountain Station reservoir and, after being treated, drops by gravity again, this time into the homes and businesses of Nelson.
After connecting Selous Creek to the reservoir in 2021, council’s next project is to do the same with Anderson Creek, which flows through Fairview. The city has already, through grant funding, laid the pipe for this project but still has to build a pump house, because the Anderson Creek intake is at a lower elevation than the reservoir. The city expects to complete the pump house this year.
But Five Mile Creek, Selous Creek, and Anderson Creek are still not enough, say city engineers, because if Five Mile Creek was disabled by a fire or a slide, we’d be in trouble.
Adding Clearwater Creek to the water system would help, they say, and it’s a priority, but it will take time.
Clearwater Creek flows into the Salmo River just beyond the Apex ski area. Linking it to Nelson’s water system would require several years of engineering studies, design work, funding, and construction.