For the last 18 years at least twice a month Gabrielle Cursons takes an important trip to the Similkameen River by her home in Cawston.
The longtime resident has been collecting water samples for Environment Canada and BC Environment at the Chopaka bridge since 1998.
“I got the job because someone had died. The man who had been doing it had died and his wife called me and asked if I was interested in doing it because she couldn’t. I’ve been doing it ever since,” she said Monday night at the Leap Day event organized by Friends of the Similkameen at the Cawston Hall.
The data is collected regularly because the river runs downstream into the US. Similar water collection is completed by a woman in Princeton. Intermittent data is collected in Hedley and Manning Park. Some of that historical data is being used in the Similkameen Valley Planning Society’s watershed plan. The plan should be completed by 2017.
The water samples Curson collects are used to keep a consistent tab on an array of different minerals, heavy metals, chemicals, bacteria including E. Coli and other substances in the river.
Cursons said she spends about a half an hour collecting the water samples and preparing them for shipping to a lab in Vancouver. She drops a dome type plastic apparatus into the water to collect most of the samples. When it’s full she pulls it out and then sends the samples accordingly. She also performs dissolved oxygen testing using special equipment.
When she first started collecting data, the river was categorized as Good by environmental guidelines. It is now considered to be fair.
She doesn’t analyze the data herself but has noticed some trends during her almost two decades of performing the water collection.
“The water is greener in colour. The rocks are slimier. It’s not as clear as it once was. I’m not sure what’s caused that, probably a few different things,” she said.
Last year specifically, she noted, tests showed that there was less dissolved oxygen in the water.
“The water levels were dropping last year and the temperatures rising,” she said.
Several times during her tenure as the sample collector, Cursons has been called because there was something going on upstream.
Most recently a mishap at a mine in Princeton occurred but she wasn’t able to get to the river to collect samples in time before contaminants, if there were any, made there way past Cawston.
The water is also tested over the border by the US.
“I try my best to get there. But sometimes by the time I can make it it’s already gone past. The river flows quickly,” she said.
All the presenters at the event noted concerns about the low levels experienced in the Similkameen last summer.
Corey Brown, a local organic farmer didn’t mix words as he said “I think the river is in trouble.”
“I have huge concerns about the river. There’s several mines in the area active and not. One misstep and our river will be contaminated past the point of return.” He encouraged anyone who is interested in the river to get informed about what’s going on around them that might have an impact.
Other presenters included a photo essay by Lee MacFadyen, an informal question and answer about issues including water, land rights, wildlife in the Okanagan Nation by Dixon Terbasket, information about the Lower Similkameen Indian Band and films about water related topics by Dave Cursons.