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The Day the Tranquille River Ran Dry

Published On: June 30, 2022

It was a lazy, August afternoon when the phone rang. A hiker had reported the Tranquille River was no longer running into Kamloops Lake. It had vanished into the riverbed several hundred meters short of the river mouth. I was not surprised as we had been facing drought conditions for weeks. Although I was still learning how to operate the 100-year-old irrigation supply system that provides Tranquille with its irrigation water, I calculated that if I opened the gate upstream at the Truda Lake Dam, I may be able to get the river reconnected. That was 13 years ago; since then, I have repeated the trek hundreds of times and the Tranquille River has never run dry again.

These, and other thoughts were going through my mind as I bounced along the washboard Criss Creek Road heading for Tranquille Lake. It was 7 am on a blue-sky Saturday morning. I was headed up the mountain to check out the Tranquille Farm dams at Tranquille and Truda Lakes. Our smaller dam at Saul Lake would be checked another time. Each dam holds back a lake which are shown on our 1909 Tranquille Farm Water licence as reservoirs for the Tranquille Farm’s irrigation. The Tranquille River rises out of this system and cascades down the mountain to Kamloops Lake.

Managed stream flows at Tranquille Lake & Truda Lake during times of drought key to maintaining connectivity with Kamloops Lake. Credit: Annette McLeod

Prior to harnessing the Tranquille River for agricultural irrigation needs in the 1920’s, the Tranquille River ecosystem was a cyclical flood and drought based semi arid ecosystem. A hot spring and summer would cause the Tranquille to run dry and lose connectivity with Kamloops Lake. Cool, wet, spring and summers-maintained river connectivity.

It was the Cooney family who first harnessed Tranquille’s water for their ranch headquartered at Tranquille when they built a dam on the Tranquille River to link an irrigation ditch with their fields. However, the Cooney’s still took their chances with the possibility of the river drying up in a drought. It was the provincial government, after purchasing the property in the 1920’s, who had their engineers figure out how to place large dams higher up on the Tranquille to create reservoirs which could be tapped for water in periods of drought. The building of dams on the Tranquille River and subsequent management of its flows created the ecosystem many enjoy today when they hike in Lac Du Bois Park.

Historic Cooney Farm irrigation ditch still visible on the west side of the Tranquille River. Photo Credit:  Annette McLeod

The 100-year-old dam infrastructure is in reasonable shape due to upgrades and maintenance activities conducted by the government until 1985. However, $1 to $2 million will be required to improve the dam’s water control gates and spillways, take steps to control erosion and flooding in critical places, improve the diversion dam, and undertake the replacement to modern standards of the farm’s antiquated and now unworkable irrigation infrastructure. Thankfully, our development team is led by a developer who is a keen environmentalist committed to investing the resources required to ensure the Tranquille River and its aquatic ecosystem will flourish for generations to come.

Spillway at Tranquille Dam. Credit: Tim McLeod

With a bit of luck, I hoped to check out snow conditions at the dams and drop in for a quick visit with Justin and Jessica, owners of Windigo Lodge on Tranquille Lake. I slowed down several times on the way to take in the magnificent canyon landscape of the Tranquille and view the incredible beauty of the Tranquille rapids (a great summer swimming hole).

After 30 minutes of driving, I saw a handwritten side hanging haphazardly from a pine tree indicating a dirt road turn off over the mountain to Windigo Lodge. Half the sign was missing, a reminder that life in the back country does not demand every manufactured thing be in pristine condition. The bush road was in half decent shape. Spring run off was present but no snow – even when I ascended up over 4,000 feet.

After another 30 minutes the turnoff into the Jackson Dam at Truda Lake appeared and I swung in to stop and check out dam conditions there. My goal was to assess where the head waters of the Tranquille River were at in terms of snow melt and spring flooding. Knowing that it takes 3-4 days for water to reach the Tranquille Farm diversion dam in Lac Du Bois Park gave me assurance that regardless of what I found I would have time to prepare the diversion dam by opening our reservoir gates in the next few days.

Bush road into Tranquille Dam. Credit: Tobi Simms

Luckily, everything was working reasonably well. The water flow down the dam face was modest and there was no debris blocking water on the spillway. A vandal had tried to open our overflow gate which was chained shut but thankfully their work was easily fixable, and no harm was done. After a quick lunch break, I continued. The road rough with frequent wash outs, the result of clear-cut logging in the area, slowed me down but my trusty 4-wheel drive eventually pulled me through. Rally driving was definitely not a choice on this patch of wilderness highway. Eventually the turn off to the Tranquille Dam was spotted and I turned in to check our second dam. Apart from the eye-catching beauty of Tranquille Lake – once a favourite holiday spot for doctors working at the Tranquille Medical Institution, what instantly caught my attention was the ice and snow on Tranquille Lake! This was extremely unusual. Water flows on the spillway were flowing unimpeded and the log boom was still anchored in place. Everything looked in decent shape except for the snow and ice on the lake. This was not normal at this time of year.

After finishing my inspection, I drove the final kilometer or so to Windigo Lodge. As always, Jessica and Justin were extremely hospitable inviting me in for a coffee and catch-up visit. Even though ice was still on the lake all cabins had been rented by a group and the site was humming with spring fever. It was good to get a high-level snow report from a local who spends the winter sledding in the area and who interacts with an entire snow mobile community that also sleds across the region. Windigo Lodge sits around 4,500 feet which makes it a perfect summer getaway from the heat in the city. Justin told me that the entire spring has been unseasonably cool but that there was little snow left to melt, which was good news. Knowing that snowmelt is almost complete for the Tranquille head waters helps us plan how best to manage all our dams to maintain stream flows from Tranquille Lake to Kamloops Lake, maintain constant water pressure for Tranquille Farm irrigation, and provide for the needs of Tranquille River’s aquatic ecosystem.

Once our planned modernization upgrades are complete, measuring river flows over the course of each year will be used to strengthen river management strategies during times of drought and flooding to ensure the health and wellness of the river and increasing protection of the habitat needs of spawning salmon and other fish species.

Tranquille River in flood June 2022. Credit: Annette McLeod

As I returned home I came around the last corner on Criss Creek Road I could look down on the Tranquille Farm. Irrigation sprinklers in the east field arced a mist of spray in the morning sun as snow melt became nourishment for the pasture grasses cattle were quietly grazing on. The arc of the spray told me we would have to go back up to the diversion dam later that day to clean screens in order to maintain pressure, but that job could wait for now. There were lots of Saturday afternoon jobs to complete before that one was tackled.