Floating the Elk River - Fun, But Safe?

Lee-Anne and family floating the Elk River

During the hazy, lazy days of summer, one of my favourite things to do is float down the Elk River. Where Fairy Creek meets the Elk, it is tricky to balance and guide my tube into the chilly current without getting dumped. Once in the flow, giggles fill the air and we raft up, trying to avoid shallow gravel bars and sweepers. By the time we get to the Stanford we are chilled to the bone but feel a deeper connection to this ribbon of life that connects us all in the valley.

Headwaters of the Elk River originate from melting glacial ice and snow in Elk Lakes Provincial Park. Along its 225 kilometre journey south to join Lake Koocanusa (actually the Kootenay River dammed since the 1970s), the Elk watershed drains 4000 square kilometres, is fed by more than 30 tributaries, the main ones being the Fording, Michel and Wigwam.

As the Elk River winds its way down the valley it is impacted by logging operations, five major coal mines, gravel extraction, three municipal developments, rural sprawl, agricultural operations, hydro generation station at Elko, railway operations, highway expansion, recreational development and tourism operations from fishing to rafting, and most recently coal bed methane drilling.

I got thinking the other day what a privilege it is to swim in a natural river, but given all of these activities impacting the Elk is it safe for me to swim, fish and float it at all?

For example, the independent Strategic Advisory Panel on Selenium Management released a report June 30 stating that as the waste rock volume removed to mine coal is increasing so is the selenium concentration in the Elk River. Although selenium is a necessary element for human health, the impacts of these current concentrations are unknown. What’s understood is the potential to cause effects on fish and wildlife. Are there any impacts to swimmers, fishers, or floaters?

BP recently started exploratory drilling for coal bed methane 22 kilometres northeast of Fernie at Fir Creek. Many toxic chemicals used in the extraction process can impact ground and surface water runoff. These chemicals are known carcinogens and can impact wildlife from fish to birds and mammals. In contact with my skin or if swallowed by accident, what is the long-term effect of these chemicals to my health or my well water?

Add to this an increasing human water footprint demanding more supply overburdening wastewater treatment and discharge to the environment. With more development of the natural ecosystems in the Elk Valley there is bound to be an accumulation of sediments, pesticide and fertilizers.

Every year we see more impacts of climate change like extreme rain events and flooding. Drought conditions result in low water levels that can have detrimental effects on aquatic organisms. Given all these cumulative impacts, will I be able to float the Elk with my grandsons when they are old enough?

To ensure the Elk River is drinkable, fishable and swimmable today and for future generations, a proactive, non-profit coalition is forming called the Elk River Alliance or ERA. This partnership has just eddied out, entering the flow by inviting all levels of government from First Nations to local leaders, industry, agriculture, tourism, community-based groups, recreation organizations and water champions to work together to gain a more holistic Elk watershed perspective.

Connecting people to the Elk River watershed ERA is guided by four key principles: 1) to provide useable tools to increase and ease access to information respecting the public right to know about their water; 2) to restore and enhance aquatic ecosystems, wetland and riparian areas; 3) to increase water literacy and action through education and community outreach; and 4) to promote participation in Water Smart conservation strategies.

Cross representation and pollination of perspectives and ideas, representing diverse opinions, values and ideas will result in ‘waterlution’, solution based thinking of the way we think, do and act around our river. Water is life. Can it be the unifying element to practice cooperation, joint decision-making and collective action?

Is floating the Elk fun – you bet! Is it safe – I for one will work to ensure I can tube it with my three grandsons in the future.

To get involved in this project call Lee-Anne 250-423-4306 or email fernienature@shaw.ca.