A CLOSER LOOK
Mission Creek originates near Big White Mountain within the southern interior of British Columbia. Creek waters travel rapidly through a variety of bio-geographical zones to finally slow and meander through bench lands in Kelowna and on to Okanagan Lake.
Mission Creek is one of the Okanagan Valley’s most important waterways, supplying roughly 25 percent of the inflow waters to Okanagan Lake. With a catchment area of 860 square kilometres, it falls almost 2,000 metres from the highest reaches of its drainage basin. Like most other Okanagan creeks, Mission Creek is characterized by a deeply incised channel that funnels water to flanking hills and glaciated, orchard-covered bench lands. Indeed, the creek flows almost a full 75 kilometres on its way to build an alluvial fan measuring roughly 12 square kilometres in the centre of Kelowna.
Mission Creek and its tributaries originate in upland lakes that have been modified over time for agricultural water storage purposes. Some of these are managed by the Black Mountain and South East Kelowna Irrigation Districts, whose mandates have expanded over the years from providing water primarily for agricultural use to supplying water for domestic and commercial purposes. Increasing consumption is impacting water supplies; in fact, Mission Creek water licences in 2000 exceeded 100 percent of the creek’s total supply.
JUST THE FACTS
- Watershed Area: 860 square kilometres
- Elevation Range: 1820 metres from Little White Mountain to Okanagan Lake
- Average Descent Slope: 2.2%
- Total Length: 75 kilometres
- Flood Plan Channel Length (1938): About 30 km
- Flood Plain Channel Length (current): About 11 km
- Creek Width (1938): 60-80 metres
- Creek Width (current): About 30 metres
- Mean Annual Discharge: 6.81 cubic meters per second (CMS)
- Record Annual Discharge: 87.5 CMS
- Annual Total Precipitation Range: 702.6mm at McCulloch Station to 329.7mm at Okanagan Lake
- Major Tributaries: Belgo Creek, Joe Rich Creek, Hydraulic Creek
- Kokanee Spawning Numbers (historic): 700,000-1,200,000 per year
- Kokanee Spawning Numbers (2010): About 16,000
Historically, the creek and surrounding habitat were home to abundant fish and wildlife stocks, which provided sustenance for early First Nations’ people. It is thought they diverted adult kokanee salmon into a side channel near what is now the convergence of Casorso and Benvoulin Roads, and then dried them to guarantee winter food supplies. They also made use of various plants found along the creek for food, building materials, and medicines. As a result, many archeological sites remain along the creek’s banks today. Land at the corner of Casorso and Swamp Roads is still owned and maintained by the Westbank First Nation, which is an MCRI partner committed to creek restoration.
European history in the area was also closely tied to Mission Creek. From the building of Father Pandosy’s mission in 1859 (where the first fruit trees in the valley were planted) to early 20th-century irrigation works (remains of which can still be found), the creek greatly influenced how the community evolved. The first European settlers, for instance, built along the creek, which soon became an important transportation route. Creek waters also provided power for a grist mill and prompted the development of placer pits that yielded two or three ounces of gold per man per day. These pits can still be seen today, as can the caves (called rock ovens) at the base of Gallagher’s Canyon that housed several families.
In recognition of its historical importance, Mission Creek was designated a BC Heritage River by the province in 1996.
Historically, the eco-systems that contributed to Mission Creek’s overall ecological health were abundant, robust and resilient. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even as recently as the 1940s, the creek was red with kokanee each fall when millions of fish returned to spawn.
Since then, however, Mission Creek’s ecological integrity has been severely degraded due to channelization and diking undertaken in the 1950s primarily to protect nearby lands from flooding. This has adversely affected fish and wildlife and their breeding, rearing, and overwintering habitats. Annual kokanee stocks, as one example, have since declined dramatically from about one million fish in the 1940s to about 30,000 in 1996 and 16,000 in 2010. Other species at risk include Painted Turtles, Spotted Bats, Whitethroated Swifts, Western Screech Owls, and Great Blue Heron.
Once restored, lower sections of Mission Creek will again support greater numbers of fish, birds, animals, and plants, making a significant contribution to the community’s social, cultural, environmental, and economic well-being.
Mission Creek provides abundant recreational opportunities for about 1,500 residents and visitors every day. A 2013 report, entitled The Natural Capital of Mission Creek in Kelowna: The Value of Ecosystem Services, estimates that the annual contribution of outdoor recreation to the area’s economy is more than $12 million.
The Mission Creek Greenway, envisioned and instigated by the Friends of Mission Creek in the mid-1990s, boasts a 16.5-kilometre trail that’s used by about 1,500 people every day for walking, running, cycling, horseback riding, and bird watching. Annual kokanee stream spawning is also a popular viewing activity. Fishing, which was once a popular activity, is no longer allowed because of depleted kokanee and trout stocks. As a result, the community has lost almost $2 million worth of economic activity annually.
Adjacent to the creek is Mission Creek Regional Park, which is home to the Environmental Education Centre for the Central Okanagan (EECO). With about 25,000 visitors annually, EECO showcases ecological displays and offers recreational and educational programs for school children and the general public.
A 2013 report, entitled The Natural Capital of Mission Creek in Kelowna: The Value of Ecosystem Services, estimates the value of natural capital provided by the MCRI project area at almost $19 million. It also estimates that restoring the lower reaches of the creek will boost value by at least ten percent.
PROTECTING MISSION CREEK
Mission Creek is protected by regulations developed and enforced by federal, provincial, and regional governments and the City of Kelowna.