Okanagan Eco-Noggin  

A burning crime

There must be a better way.

That's what I think every fall as I stare at multiple slash piles billowing smoke, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon monoxide and other compounds in the valley.

Have you ever wondered why, each fall, there are thousands of massive, smoky fires burning across the province?

After harvesting a forest stand, logging companies are required to dispose of the leftover, non-marketable biomass (known as “slash”) to reduce the fire load. And there are basically two options to dispose of slash:

  • Burn it
  • Recycle it.

Slash burning requires a few minutes of labour and a few dollars worth of diesel/gasoline mixture in a drip torch. Recycling the material requires an entire secondary industry to convert the biomass into useful products.

Naturally, nearly all this material gets burned.

However, while burning is obviously the low-effort alternative, it carries major disadvantages. As mentioned above, slash burning creates all sorts of air pollutants.

For at least 40 years, scientists have measured the same harmful compounds in slash fire smoke as in car exhaust and other tightly regulated pollution sources.

The difference is that automobiles are equipped with pollution-control devices, whereas slash burning mitigation primarily entails venting away from populated areas.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, slash piles are not counted toward total greenhouse gas emissions by the provincial or federal governments – despite having ministries with names such as Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

To get an estimate of the uncounted mass of CO2 that is sent skyward, consider that somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 slash piles are burned each year in B.C. Assuming each pile weighs about two to three tonnes, that would create about five tonnes of CO2 per pile.

In total, about two million tonnes of CO2 would be produced by slash burning in B.C. annually. None of this is counted, taxed, offset or mitigated, even though it creates the same molecule (CO2) that is generated by burning gasoline, and that costs you $40 for each tonne that you produce.

In other words, the B.C. government subsidizes slash burning to the tune of about $100 million per year.

Put another way, the B.C. government turns a blind eye to the equivalent CO2 emissions of about 133,000 B.C. residents – basically the annual emissions generated by the population of Kelowna.

According to the B.C. government website,

“B.C.’s carbon tax provides a signal across the economy to reduce emissions while encouraging sustainable economic activity and investment in low-carbon innovation.”

What signal is being sent by exempting two million tonnes of CO2?

Aside from the creation of CO2 and hazardous pollutants like ozone and particulate matter, burning this biomass is simply a waste of resources. Instead, this material could be diverted for beneficial uses.

A few simple solutions include:

  • Chip the material and distributed it back to the forest floor as a source of carbon, reducing carbon emissions
  • Buck the material into piles and post a waypoint online to free firewood; it would be recovered within hours, offsetting wood that would otherwise be cut for heating
  • Recover all wood for incineration in “waste-to-energy” plants

Similarly, the B.C. government has a website and infographic that extol the virtues of biomass recovery and list nearly fifty products ranging from biofuels to engineered wood products to advanced composite materials that, hypothetically, could be created from this material.

When asked what mass of biomass is currently being recovered for beneficial uses, a B.C. government spokesperson responded that they:

"…have partnered to provide millions of dollars to forestry contractors so that some slash will be repurposed in the pulp, paper and pellet industry.”

However, the government could not provide an estimate of how much material has been diverted to re-use rather than being burned – presumably, this is a very small amount.

Ministers Heyman and Conroy, please address this two million-tonne loophole that is wasting our resources and subsidizing pollution.


The turtles are happy

The painted turtles in the Mission Creek Regional Park turtle pond can rest easy.

If you’ve been following the news on the turtle pond, you may recall that local residents expressed concern over falling water levels and hot, cloudy water in the ponds.

When the water supply for the Hall Road area was switched from the Southeast Kelowna Irrigation District to the City of Kelowna, there was no longer a non-chlorinated source of water to sustain the series of ponds, resulting in loss of habitat for the turtles.

Fortunately, the RDCO was able to tap an existing groundwater license to extract water from the aquifer, restoring flow to the fountain that feeds the fishing pond and the series of downstream ponds. 

When I visited the ponds recently, the fountain was running, water levels were back to normal, the water was clear, and the turtles appeared to be content. 

The final step will be to transition the well from a generator to the grid, which should be complete in the next few weeks.

The RDCO contracted Ecoscape Environmental Consultants to help protect the pond and turtles.

Jason Schleppe, a principal at Ecoscape, pointed out that restoring the pond protected many more species than the highly visible turtles.

For example, amphibious species would also have benefitted from the restoration of water levels.

A major benefit of these ponds is their proximity to the Mission Creek Greenway, which is a relatively undisturbed island of riparian habitat within our urban landscape.

He also mentioned that Kelowna has several other kettle lakes and ponds that provide important habitat for turtles and other species. Kettle lakes were formed by remnants of glaciers that were left on or under the landscape after the retreat of the massive ice sheets that formed our valleys.

For example, Munson Pond, near KLO road, and Carney Pond, near the airport, are currently being enhanced for habitat and aesthetics.

The Hall Road children’s fishing pond, middle pond and turtle pond make for a nice short hike with great scenery and plenty of shade.

If you haven’t seen them, go check them out some time. They can be accessed from Hall Road or from the many trails within Mission Creek park off Springfield Road.

The turtles provide a nice dose of serenity, something we can all use more of this year.

Practise coastal distancing

Now that Okanagan residents are mastering social distancing, it’s time for Okanagan boaters to practise coastal distancing.

With high water levels in Okanagan lakes in the past few years, boating has been discouraged near shorelines to protect against erosion and property damage.

A recent study commissioned by the Regional District of North Okanagan and District of Lake Country suggests coastal distancing should be applied permanently.

Motorboats can disturb shorelines and sediment through three main mechanisms: the wake, waves and prop wash.

The study focused on:

  • Prop wash, which is the turbulent stream of water beneath the water surface from the boat’s propeller
  • The wake, which is the visible wave from the boat’s hull as it moves through the water.

The study was conducted in Kalamalka and Okanagan lakes by Larratt Aquatic Consulting. They used aerial drones and submerged instruments to record the movement of sediment as boats passed by at depths ranging from 2-8 metres.

When boats passed over sediments that were less than three metres deep, the sediments were completely stirred up. At depths of 4-5 metres, the re-suspension was less extreme, but still caused disturbance, whereas little interaction occurred at depths beyond five metres.

At eight metres, the effect was measurable, but not likely harmful to aquatic life. It is, however, important to manage near drinking water intakes.

Disturbing the sediment can affect water quality at drinking water intakes in multiple ways.

The sediment can carry bacteria and metals, and it can clog filters, making the water more difficult and expensive to treat. Disturbing sediments can also release nutrients into the water, potentially causing a cascade of changes to the ecosystem and to water quality.

This is a real risk in a lake like Wood Lake, which UBC research has shown to have elevated nutrients in its sediments.

The recent study was prompted by data from District of Lake Country’s water intake, which has seen elevated turbidity on long weekends.

Stirring up the sediment can cause a number of other impacts in a lake. The sediments host a community of insects and animals that form a link in the food chain between primary producers such as algae and higher order consumers such as fish.

Stirring up their habitat with prop wash is the lake’s equivalent of a tornado in a trailer park.

You can see these effects in an aerial drone video, and you can imagine the plume from the perspective of the insect or animal burrowed in the sediment that is now being hurled through the water.

Vegetation growing in the sediments can dampen the disturbance caused by prop wash, but the plants themselves can be washed away by high turbulence, or they can become tangled in props. Worse, if the plants are invasive species like Eurasian water milfoil, prop wash can spread these plants to other areas.

An earlier study by researchers at Penn State titled Stirring Up Trouble? provides additional details on how sediment is re-suspended by prop wash. The amount of re-suspension depends on boat size, shape, speed, prop dimension, motor trim and other factors. 

Likewise, the potential damage to the sediments depends on their size, shape and density. Boat speed had an interesting relationship with sediment re-suspension — the greatest amount of sediment was moved when the boat was running about 16 kilometres an hour, immediately before the boat went into plane.

This makes sense, because boats are working hard and pointed more vertically during that time.

Water depth is the most important factor, because in deep portions of the lake, the prop wash has no effect on the lake bed. Larratt recommended travelling slowly in waters less than eight metres deep.

As she pointed out, wake boat manufacturers recommend operating in deeper waters for optimal wake generation, so deep water is a better place to play.

In addition, staying away from the shoreline can protect against erosion. This is particularly important for the Okanagan Rail Trail that runs along Wood and Kalamalka lakes. 

The Regional District of North Okanagan owns the northernmost section of this system.

“We know that natural factors like high water can cause shoreline erosion, but adding waves from boats can accelerate this erosion,” said Ashley Gregerson, RDNO’s communications officer.  

“If we can take the human factor out of that equation, we can avoid additional erosion and potentially save millions of dollars in mitigation simply by staying away from shore.

“Accordingly, RDNO recommends maintaining a distance of at least 40 metres from the shore along the Okanagan Rail Trail,” Gregerson said.

These seem like reasonable precautions that would not limit boating opportunities; the vast majority of open water is deeper than eight in large lakes such as Kalamalka, Wood, Skaha and Okanagan.

Other than launching, I keep my boat well away from shore. It’s safer in the middle of the lake where there are no rocks, weeds or other hidden obstructions – or buoys, swimmers and paddlers who recreate in the shallow areas.

Think of this as coastal distancing — it will keep our lakes healthy for everyone to enjoy.


Disinfectants are not science experiments

Hazardous DIY disinfectant

During this pandemic, many of us are taking extra steps to disinfect our hands, countertops, tools and other objects. Not surprisingly, hoarders made this more difficult for all of us by clearing the shelves of hand sanitizer and many cleaning products.

In response, many people have taken to the internet to find ways to repurpose household products into disinfectants. But keep in mind that some of these household chemicals are hazardous materials that can react to form serious health hazards.

Unfortunately, the statistics show a recent increase in poisonings and exposures with chemicals such as bleach and hand sanitizers. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, two of the main exposures that have increased are inhalation of fumes from bleach and other cleaners, and alcohol poisoning in children under five years old from accidentally consuming hand sanitizer.


The alcohol poisoning in young children can be avoided by simply remembering that hand sanitizer is hazardous to our health and treating it as such. Now that breweries and other facilities have ramped up production of hand sanitizer, there will be more of it left within hands reach for ourselves, but unfortunately also in reach of small kids to sample. Hand sanitizer contains ethanol (the alcohol spirits), and it may also contain methanol (wood alcohol, a byproduct of fermentation that can harm us) and isopropyl alcohol (an ingredient added to discourage consumption of the ethanol). If you use a magnifying glasses and squint, you will see a label on every bottle of hand sanitizer that says “KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.”

The story with household cleaners is a bit more interesting. To check if we are seeing more of these types of exposures in Canada, I called the BC Drug and Poison Information Centre. They told me that, yes, they are seeing an increase in exposures to household cleaners, but the cause is usually inappropriate mixing of household chemicals such as bleach and vinegar. Such household chemistry experiments cause all sorts of noxious fumes that are then inhaled. Moreover, these mixtures are unnecessary; the CDC has simple instructions to make disinfectants by mixing bleach and water on this web page.

In laboratories, we use fume hoods to suck fumes away from our faces, and we wear rubber gloves, lab coats and safety glasses when handling these chemicals. If you are mixing these chemicals at home (even with water), try to mimic these controls – work in a well-ventilated area (outdoors is best) and wear rubber gloves and safety glasses.

If you or others are accidentally exposed to any of these chemicals, call the BC DPIC at 1-800-567-8911 or 911. But let’s take all the steps we can to avoid that in the first place.

More Okanagan Eco-Noggin articles

About the Author

Jerry Vandenberg is an environmental scientist and owner of Vandenberg Water Science. He lives in the Okanagan region where he is also a paid-on-call fire fighter.

He can be reached at (250) 491-7260; [email protected]; https://www.linkedin.com/in/jerry-vandenberg/

Website: www.vws.ltd


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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