A Thirsty Business
Balfour is a tiny British Columbia community nestled in the Selkirk Mountains between Nelson and Kaslo along the West Arm of Kootenay Lake. The community is home to the Kootenay Lake ferry, which claims a little bit of fame around these parts: it’s the longest free ferry in the world.
Balfour is a community of about 500 people and is home to families that have lived and worked there for many generations. Scott Heuston is a lifelong rancher and logger who is in his seventies and still running beef cattle. The Heuston family has farmed there since 1925. Laird Creek runs near the property.
The family has relied on the creek for water for generations. Many other homes also rely on water from the creek. Scott knows how important access to water is for ranchers and farmers.
“We irrigate our pastures. We get water right from Laird Creek.”
As ranchers, the Heustons are the most significant water user out of Laird Creek. They had no trouble accessing the creek water until a 2011 landslide. In 2007 a logging company logged on the creek slope. The changes in the land around the creek caused a landslide four years later. Scott explains.
“A few years ago, (BC Timber Sales) logged on a deep slope into the creek. (The slope) took off four years later and plugged up the creek and made quite a mess. The solution was to buy cases of bottled water. That doesn’t do me any good.”
This situation worries Scott.
“Now, there are two proposals for logging in the creek, and people are pretty concerned about it because it’s a fairly steep slope. It won’t be stable and will probably end up sluffing.”
Scott has logged throughout his life to supplement his farming efforts, and he is unsettled.
“I’m concerned. I’ve been in the logging business all my life, but I don’t like how they do some things. I agree with the logging if they can do it cleanly. But not clear-cut everything. That’s one thing I have a problem with. In the long term, it’s going to make a mess in the creek. If there’s sluff, you get high turbidity in the water, and we end up trying to keep the water clean to use in our system.”
Keeping it in the Family
Another creek user is Dianne Luchtan. She bought land on Laird Creek 50 years ago.
“Laird Creek runs right through the middle of my 30 acres. I grow good food; it has good air, good water. It’s a wonderful place to raise kids, and I still have family living on the land. I don’t think I could have found a better place,” says Dianne.
In 1972, the family cut logs off the property to build a house, moving in three years later.
“I’m 78, and I come from a very long-lived family. I’m trying to get things set up, so it’s very easy for me to carry on here in my 80s and 90s.”
One of Dianne’s sons and his wife and adult kids live on the land. Sadly, Dianne’s other son died four years ago, but his wife and two grown kids also live there. Her sister lives on the property next door. It’s truly a family affair, says Dianne.
“I don’t view this land as something to be sold. I view it as something that whoever in the family needs a place to live where you can grow your food and cut your firewood and have good water, that will carry on. That’s the way my descendants and I view this place.”
Dianne notices changes on her land, especially with her specialty: plants.
“The plants that need a wetter climate are fading out, and the things that need a drier climate are becoming more dominant.”
She has noticed changes to the weather as well.
“Everything is way more unpredictable and comes with twice the force. On the west side of the creek logging along ridges changed the wind pattern. That, combined with severe windstorms, causes blowdowns. The severity of the rain, when it comes, is much harder. Everything is way more extreme. We’re all generally a bit anxious, but we’ve been doing a lot of work to try to make the place fireproof and windproof. Not everybody can do that.”
Over her decades here, Dianne has led efforts to protect Laird Creek.
“One of the things about the creek is that it’s really steep. The old-timers thought that too: there’s not too much logging that could go on in the creek because it’s just too steep.”
Dianne stresses the importance of having trees around the creek. Trees hold the sides of the creek together, and also hold and release water that comes down as rain and snow. Dianne explains that “trees also intercept the snow and slow down the melt, preventing mud and debris slides and sediments entering the creek.”
If one thing unites this rural community, it’s the creek, says Dianne.
“There are many people on this watershed. It’s a big, very mixed community. Many people made their living in the forest industry, and they know the most about how [logging] works and doesn’t work. Almost everyone takes their gardens very seriously. We have some campgrounds. Some people are professionals in town and some work at home. But there is a general interest in keeping our water and our land safe.”
Team Laird Creek
Renee Hayes has lived on five acres on Laird Creek since 1988. From Montrose, she visited Kootenay Lake as a child. As a chef, Renee worked all over, from Nelson to New York.
“It was nice after moving around to settle in a place I felt was the most beautiful in the world. It’s a great community, really good people who live here are concerned, look after each other and the watershed. The water is fantastic and very reliable except for the couple of times we’ve had incidents because of logging.”
In 1992, Laird Creek water users were invited to participate in West Arm Demonstration Forest meetings with the BC Ministry of Forests. A demonstration forest is an area managed for forestry, education, and research. Renee got involved in 1997 with Dianne as her mentor.
“Being in the West Arm Demonstration Forest was our best way to keep an eye on what was going on,” says Renee. “Even then, their allowable annual cut seemed a bit extreme to us.”
In 2004, the demonstration forest was dismantled, and BC Timber Sales announced plans to log into the Laird Creek drainage. The community made a petition with 80 water users’ signatures, presented it to BC Timber Sales, and filed a complaint against the BC Forest Practices Board. But the logging of the upper creek area began in the summer of 2007.
Renee says, “BC timber sales went ahead and did their logging against many of the concerns we had like their road location, the steepness of the slope. We warned them.”
Muddying the Waters
In May 2011, a landslide and debris flow roared 850 metres down the steep, unstable slope and deposited around 2,000 m3 of mud, gravel, rock, and broken trees into the creek, which was the source of drinking water for over a hundred residents. The water was too dirty to drink.
“It was very discouraging. All the discussions we had came to nought,” Dianne explains. “It messed up our water. It was terrible. We have the highest water box on the creek and had just spent much money getting a really good water system, and it had to be cleaned out. There was mud in the tank. We have a lot of money invested in our water system, and we’re not too happy.”
Too much logging changes the relationship between the land and the water. Clearcutting disturbs the earth and leaves it vulnerable to landslides. A big melt in the spring, while perhaps before the logging would have left the watershed undisturbed, can cause landslides like this one.
Renee also remembers this clearly.
“It devastated people’s water boxes. We had to spend time and money to get them cleaned up. The logging company didn’t do anything. They brought in blue jugs of drinking water for three months. People’s washing machines were destroyed, and water lines plugged. It was a mess. It was frustrating because we’d been telling them all along it was a bad idea, and they totally ignored us. I was angry. It was 2-3 months before everything came back around.”
In 2017, the tenure in the Laird Creek watershed was transferred to Cooper Creek Cedar Ltd. The logging company announced plans to access cut blocks further up the creek. Residents strongly disapproved. In the summer of 2020, Copper Creek announced it would go ahead.
“Instead of dealing with the forest service, we were dealing with the company that wanted to log. That’s a very untenable position to be in. There is no consideration taken for the long-term functioning of the creek and especially with climate change,” says Dianne.
Waiting for the Perfect Ending
Rancher Scott Heuston is very invested in seeing the creek protected for the next generation.
“The government doesn’t care much about small water users in the creek. They’re more worried about money and stumpage coming off the land from the trees, which is way more money than what a couple of dozen water users pay for creek water rights. I don’t think the [provincial] government supports the local people.”
Team Laird Creek is hard at work to this day. Renee is hopeful about recent efforts, but holding hope is tough after decades of strategizing, sending petitions, calls and letters to governments.
“We’ve had meetings to establish group togetherness so that all watersheds would come together to work towards a common goal. We got together, looked at our common problems and said what we need is a science group to come in and look and offer their scientific opinions. I hope it will make a difference.”
Renee is talking about a team of forest specialists they brought in this May to run a detailed study that they hope will lead to the area getting a special designation to prevent logging.
Renee says, “I would like to see Laird left as naturally intact as possible. It’s one of the last mountaintop to lakeside ecosystems that we have.”
She hopes with creek residents banding together government changes might be possible so that logging takes place more responsibly, especially around watersheds.
“Timber companies regulate themselves. There’s a forest practices board, but it generally sides with the logging companies. So if we could get [provincial] legislation changed, that would be wonderful.”
Dianne is hopeful that pressure from citizens will make a change.
“We are overall very nervous but still hopeful that things could still change and that our land and our watershed be protected. I’m hopeful people will wake up and say, ‘hey, wait a minute, this isn’t working. We’ve had way too many fires and way too many slides and way too many extreme weather events, and we’ve got to stop.’ We keep trying and other than people who are in power waking up to the actions they allow that have consequences on people.”
Through community, Dianne holds onto hope.
“I live in a caring community. Our community has been standing up for, fighting for the watersheds for a long time. I’m very grateful to be living in this type of community. We just keep putting one foot in front of the other, trying trying trying.”