Drying wetlands in Colombia
The water management work in this story takes place on the unceded common lands of the Ktunaxa and Secwepemc peoples, home to the communities of the Akisqnuk First Nation and Shuswap Band and the chosen home of the Columbia Valley Metis.
“We want to know which wetlands are the most vulnerable and the most valuable. This is a difficult question to answer because they are all vulnerable and valuable… and they all need water,” said Susan Bailey, president of Columbia Wetlands Stewardship Partners (CWSP). .
Colombia’s wetlands are drying up, and have been for decades due to climate change. One solution may help wetlands adapt and protect their key components. It involves mimicking the actions of one of the most famous and widespread animals across Canada.
Stretching more than 180 kilometers and 26,000 hectares, the Columbia Wetlands in southeastern British Columbia are teeming with biodiversity and providing an abundance of benefits to the surrounding communities. Flood control, groundwater recharge, irrigation needs, water filtration, carbon storage – these wetlands help with it all. As part of the Pacific Flyway, one of North America’s four major migration routes, Colombia’s wetland waters provide a safe haven for more than 160 species of migratory birds including the endangered tundra swan.
Wetlands are among the world’s most productive ecosystems, but they are also one of the most threatened. Since 1970, one-third of wetlands have been lost. Although Colombia’s wetlands are Ramsar-classified and internationally recognised, nearly 40% of this pristine floodplain remains unprotected. It is critical that steps are taken to better understand and protect this wetland system. When wetlands are protected, everyone wins.
On the ground in Colombia’s wetlands, research has found that water-loving plants are being replaced by willows, a plant that requires less water. Over the past 39 years, the prevalence of willows in wetlands has doubled, indicating a drying landscape. Wetlands that once had open water year-round are now dry in winter and spring. Now, migratory birds have fewer options for rest and feeding during long journeys. In fact, certain areas of Colombia’s wetlands have lost more than 16% of their permanent open water area in the past few decades.
The disappearance of water from Colombia’s wetlands is disturbing, but not surprising. Behind the scenes, climate change is causing temperatures to rise, snowmelt to decrease, and glaciers to recede. This means there is less water to fill and flood these wetlands. But the behavior of one animal with sharp teeth, webbed feet and paddle tail highlights a way to help conserve water in wetlands.
Beavers are known as ecosystem engineers, weaving trees and branches into dams and mud-fortified dwellings. Beaver dams act as natural dams and create partially continuous wetlands. During floods, water flows over the dam and is trapped behind its walls. The landscape is then able to retain water, rather than letting it drain away and move downstream or river. Like a bathtub plug, beaver dams help increase areas of water open to wildlife.
“Anything we do long-term is in the face of reduced water due to climate change,” said Bailey, who advocates for scientific research and restoration in the region. “Opening water in Columbia wetlands by restoring abandoned beaver dams is critical,” said Bailey, who advocates for scientific research and restoration in the region. “But what we can do is continue efforts to help preserve open water in Colombia’s wetlands by restoring abandoned beaver dams.”
According to Bailey, it is not known why beavers are absent from upland wetlands. Possible causes include lack of sufficient water to maintain wetland health, lack of suitable food, increased predators, and historical traps.
“Beavers could be reintroduced, but that would require a permit, and unless we know why their numbers are failing, they are likely to fail again,” Bailey said.
Wetland research is led and supervised by the Colombia Wetlands Stewardship Partners (CWSP). As a member, Living Lakes Canada has worked alongside CWSP and its partner organizations since 2006 to develop and promote effective management of Colombia’s wetlands.
Last summer, Living Lakes Canada staff supported CWSP in assessing upland wetlands on the western bench of the Columbia Wetlands. The results show scientific evidence of a 50-year drought; The same is observed throughout the valley floor wetlands. Water from these highland wetlands seeps through old and deteriorating beaver dams.
“Through drone surveys, we’ve seen wetlands that were previously healthy are turning into shrubs and conifers. Wetlands no longer function as wetlands because they’ve been dry for too long,” said Jessica Holden, a wetlands technician with Living Lakes Canada. .
One possible solution to this problem is to “play beaver.”
Armed with large poles, mud, clay and plenty of debris, the wetlands team aims to repair beaver dams at nine identified restoration sites. Man-made beaver dams, known as their counterparts to beaver dams, will help retain water in upland wetlands.
The key to measuring the success of this restoration project is monitoring before and after the beaver dam restoration. Bird surveys, observations of wetland vegetation, sampling of benthic macroinvertebrates, and more will provide insight into how wetlands respond.
“We want to see more cattails, bull plants, water lilies and open areas of water — all signs of healthy wetlands,” said Catriona Levin, a wetland ecologist at CWSP.
Colombia’s wetlands are one piece of a larger watershed puzzle. A broader understanding of climate impacts on water across the region will provide additional insights. Living Lakes Canada’s Columbia Basin Water Monitoring Framework is building a large-scale water climate monitoring network across five regions throughout Canada’s Columbia Basin, including the Columbia-Kotenai Headwaters Hydrological Area where the Columbia Wetlands are located. Comprehensive long-term monitoring of these watersheds will provide the data needed to support local and regional climate adaptation efforts.
Living Lakes Canada joins many other partner organizations working to conserve and restore wetlands in Colombia. This includes the Shuswap Band’s Columbia Aquatic Restoration Strategy (Secwépemc) and the Kootenay Conservation Program’s Kootenay Connect Species at Risk Project.
Funders include, but are not limited to, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Columbia Basin Fund, the Columbia Valley Native Conservation Fund, and the BC Wildlife Federation.
Image of lead: Drone photo of a beaver dam restoration site next to the Columbia River. Photo by Jessica Holden/CWSP
Presented by Living Lakes Canada