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B.C.'s drought a 'sleeping giant' of a natural disaster, minister warns

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The persistent drought in British Columbia is unlike anything the province has experienced before, the emergency management minister stressed Wednesday before outlining three scenarios that could play out in the coming months.

Bowinn Ma said the drought has fuelled the destruction wrought by a record-breaking wildfire season but that it is also having impacts that are less visible and immediate – but no less threatening.

"I want to emphasize how significant the drought that British Columbia is facing is right now. It is unlike any kind of drought conditions the province has ever faced and, in my opinion, truly is a sleeping giant of a natural disaster that we are challenged with right now," she said.

"The impacts will be very, very real."

Eighty per cent of the province's watersheds are at drought level four or five. This means that "adverse impacts on both communities and ecosystems" are likely or almost certain, according to the province's ranking system.

The best case scenario, Ma said, is that the province gets consistent and gradual rainfall that "gently recharges" water levels to a "healthy place." The second possibility is that the drought persists, which could mean the continuation of water restrictions or prompt further limits. The third thing that could happen is that the province gets hit with "too much water too quickly," Ma said, adding that this brings the possibility of flooding which could be catastrophic – as it was in 2021.

"I don't say these things to scare people but it is important for us to really understand how serious of a drought situation we are in," Ma said.

Jonathan Boyd with the River Forecast Centre said the best-case scenario is also the least likely.

"Usually, rain falls from specific storm events that occur in relatively short periods of time," he said.

Another thing Boyd noted is that the needed rain will have to come before the ground freezes. In the northern part of the province that can happen as early as October which means, he said, that "time is running out" to alleviate drought there.

In parts of the province that have been badly damaged by wildfires, he also said the impact of a sudden surge of rain could deal another blow to the already fragile landscape.

Forestry Minister Bruce Ralston said the province has been asking everyone to voluntarily conserve water since April, and brought in restrictions as necessary and as a last resort. He echoed other officials in saying that while wetter, cooler weather in some regions has been "welcome" recently – it has not been anywhere near enough to bring relief.

"I'd like to reiterate that we'll need several inches or more of rainfall over an extended period of time to help alleviate our drought conditions," he said, also saying he anticipates there will be continuing "challenges across around access to water."

Both Ma and Ralston alluded to the need for British Columbians to start thinking about water scarcity as a serious threat that is being accelerated by climate change.

"We are used to having plentiful access to beautiful clean water and we have not necessarily developed as a province, the conservation mentality that we will now need to develop moving forward into the future," Ma said.

"We all need to rethink and be more mindful of how we use water beyond the current situation," Ralston said.

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