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Caretakers say it’s a crucial time to protect kɬúsx̌nítkʷ, the ‘heart’ of syilx homelands

With threats including shoreline erosion, microplastic and pollution, stewardship and conservation is top of mind for Indigenous and Western scientists
Along the shore of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake) in sn’pinktn (Penticton) in syilx homelands on Dec. 2.

Located in the “heart” of syilx homelands, kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake) is a lifeline for the people, plants and animals who depend on its nourishment.

The original stewards of the lake kept it pristine. However, with the onset of water pollution, shoreline erosion, climate change and the presence of microplastics — caretakers face a new set of challenges as they look towards protecting kɬúsx̌nítkʷ for future generations.

Following a water ceremony on the shore of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ in September, Elder K̓ninm̓tm̓ taʔ n̓q̓ʷic̓tn̓s Wilfred ‘Grouse’ Barnes of Westbank First Nation said he has noticed “a lack of care” towards the lake and encouraged people to take more action to protect it.

At the nk’mip (Osoyoos Lake) Water Forum in October, syilx and non-syilx groups came together to discuss the protection of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ and how threats to the lake and its shorelines can be mitigated.

During one session, it was revealed that a low level of microplastics are present in kɬúsx̌nítkʷ — 2.75 g were collected during a preliminary study which surveyed five freshwater sample sites during the summer of 2021. 

A presentation by Larratt Aquatic Consulting at the same forum highlighted the impact that water sports have had on sediments in kɬúsx̌nítkʷ and across the entire watershed. Specifically, turbulent waves and the downward-pointing vertical jets that come with wakeboarding are disturbing contaminated sediments, releasing harmful toxins that ultimately impact the water quality and habitat for aquatic beings.

Furthermore, the natural shoreline of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ, spanning 290 km, is being impacted by growing development. A rise in broad land-usage around the lake — driven by single-family, commercial and industrial entities — is posing a grave threat to the biological and ecological function of the lake. 

As more natural shoreline is lost to residential and commercial development, the risks include a permanent loss in key habitat functions, habitat connectivity and clean drinking water — issues that impact all living things which call the valley their home.

A declining shoreline

Overall, 59 per cent of natural shoreline along kɬúsx̌nítkʷ has been lost, according to a 2016 Foreshore Inventory and Mapping (FIM) update report of the lake. With just 41 per cent of natural shoreline remaining, the lake continues to experience a slow decline of natural shoreline each year due to development, researchers said. 

Between 2009 and 2016, 4.1 km (or 1.42 per cent) of natural area around the shoreline was lost or permanently altered. During this period, the construction of 165 new retaining walls, 164 new docks and nine new marinas along the lake’s shoreline were observed.

K̓ninm̓tm̓ taʔ n̓q̓ʷic̓tn̓s Wilfred “Grouse” Barnes, a syilx Elder and knowledge keeper from Westbank First Nation, stands at the shore of Okanagan Lake in syilx homelands on Sept. 25. Photo by Aaron Hemens

“It adds up to something that is measurable and of high risks to important natural ecosystem functions around the lake,” writes Ecoscape Environmental Consultants, the group who prepared the report.

Continued changes or disturbances to the natural shoreline — brought on by an increase in density and land use surrounding the lake — could result in the direct loss of fish habitats, wildlife and even clean drinking water, the report states.

As noted by Okanagan Nation Alliance, the habitat availability for a variety of species, such as sockeye and kokanee salmon, would be greatly impacted by the loss of natural shoreline, as these aquatic beings tend to spawn near lakeshores. And since natural shorelines help with the infiltration of runoff into the ground, losing that would increase both peak water flow and the probability of flooding.

“On average, all areas that increase in density from single family or greater, have lost nearly all natural character and have significantly reduced biological capability to support key ecosystem functions,” states the FIM report.

Protecting what remains, rather than disturbing natural areas, is crucial because “it is less likely it will be restored to a similar level of biological function.” The report says that there’s a likelihood that over the next 40 to 160 years, “any areas that are not protected will become disturbed to a greater extent, reducing the overall biological capacity of the Okanagan region.”

Not only is education for the public on shoreline protection and restoration crucial, but the report recommended that all levels of government need to work together towards a common goal in protecting the lake. More importantly, the development of a lakeshore management plan is vital, as there is not one consistent management plan for kɬúsx̌nítkʷ that all levels of government are using.

“If there is a true desire to protect Okanagan Lake, urgent action is necessary to ensure that we educate the public and develop regulation or policy to protect what matters,” states the report.

Protecting kɬúsx̌nítkʷ and beyond

As a response to the FIM report, a total of 27 syilx and non-syilx organizational bodies — including ONA, syilx member communities, local governments, regional districts, conservation agencies and more — came together in 2018 to determine a shoreline management plan to protect the natural areas around kɬúsx̌nítkʷ. It was here where the syilx-led kɬúsx̌nítkʷ Responsibility Planning Initiative came to be.

During a presentation of the initiative at the nk’mip Water Forum, Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program manager Scott Boswell revealed that it was at this initial meeting in 2018 where all levels of government agreed that current operations were not working to protect both the water and the land.

While creating a plan to protect natural shoreline along kɬúsx̌nítkʷ was the initial goal, Boswell said that the scope of the project expanded to protecting the kɬúsx̌nítkʷ watershed in its entirety. 

 “They all agreed that they would use a syilx-led process to look at ways of doing things differently,” said Boswell.

Beginning in 2019, the co-ordinating team behind the Responsibility Planning Initiative visited every community around kɬúsx̌nítkʷ, where they asked each municipality to assign a staff representative to the project and provide resources. 

After a policy-gap analysis, Boswell said that it was clear that non-syilx partners working in the project had little to no understanding of syilx laws or protocols, and how they can be utilized to create sustainable development practices. As a result, the co-ordinating team conducted 11 capacity-building workshops, where syilx history, laws and protocols were shared. 

“We met as much as possible as we could out on the water, out near the lake,” said Tessa Terbasket of Lower Similkameen Indian Band, who works in ONA’s natural resources department.

“That meeting on the land really changes the conversation and brings the lake into the conversation itself.”

Tessa Terbasket of Lower Similkameen Indian Band speaks during a presentation at the 2022 nk’mip (Osoyoos Lake) Water Science Forum at the Sonora Community Centre on Oct. 28. Photo by Aaron Hemens

The workshops were recorded, and 37 interviews with syilx leaders and other elected officials were also completed.

“This process would not have been possible — and we’re still at this process — without the voices of our syilx Elders, community members, Youth and women, who are really our foundation and are guiding us along as we go,” said Terbasket.

In addition to community engagement, she added that the syilx’s siwɬkʷ (Water) Strategy, which outlines the Nation’s collective commitment and responsibility to taking care of water, played a crucial role in helping to direct the kɬúsx̌nítkʷ Responsibility Planning Initiative.

Through research, workshops and community engagement, Boswell said that five themes emerged: re-imagining water governance, syilx traditional ecological knowledge, truth and reconciliation, rights and responsibilities, and capacity bridging.

These five themes will be used to help develop and implement the siwɬkʷ Responsibility Action Plan, meant to guide protection of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ and the watershed as a whole. The plan, which would provide guidance for new land-use practices based on syilx values, is slated to be done for 2024.

For now, Terbasket said that the ONA coordinating team is continuing to interview community members and gather syilx ecological knowledge. Interviews and watershed tours with Elders are also part of this process.

Workshops with non-syilx partners are also ongoing to further refine points of action. A syilx version of a memorandum of understanding for the action plan is being developed, which would uphold commitments to the project and hold each other accountable.

While it’s important to think about the scale of protecting the kɬúsx̌nítkʷ watershed, Terbasket said that it’s equally important to create a safe space for meaningful engagement that allows the syilx Nation to uphold their worldview, title, rights and responsibilities to the water and the land.

“Okanagan Lake is really the heart of the valley. It’s the heart of our territory,” she said. “In recognizing the people, I must also recognize all the fish and all the salmon, the aquatic species, the elk, and all the wildlife that also depend on this lake equally.”

Reporting for this story was made possible in part through a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.