By Jenn Watt
Water its components and the life it sustains have been the passion of Haliburton’s Daniel Selbie for most of his adult life.
Growing up surrounded by the lakes of the Highlands Selbie developed a curiosity early on for how water bodies function and followed that inspiration through a bachelor of science master’s and doctorate.
Now head of the Lakes Research Program at Cultus Lake B.C. for Fisheries and Oceans Canada Selbie finds himself pulled in myriad directions – from his adjunct professorships at three universities to advising on one of the largest environmental mining disasters in B.C. history.
Last fall his work on the latter was recognized by Fisheries and Oceans with a distinction award for excellence in public service in the science and policy category.
“Our group works on sockeye salmon mainly but Pacific salmon in general” Selbie 38 says.
Sockeye salmon are born in freshwater travel to the sea to mature and return to spawn.
“So what we work on is mainly the freshwater life history phase. Sockeye rears in lakes so their young are growing to a certain age usually two years old in freshwater lakes along the coast and then they go out to sea.”
A limnologist by training Selbie studies “the physical chemical and biological aspects of lakes’ structure and function.”
This all came in handy on Aug. 4 2014 when the Mount Polley dam in central B.C. broke releasing tailings from its copper and gold mining operations into Quesnel Lake.
In the aftermath of the disaster Selbie was asked to contribute to an interagency response.
“Basically what I’ve been doing … has been providing science advice both internally and externally on the impacts of that event and how best to react to it to protect Canadian resources largely fish and fish habitat.”
According to Selbie when the dam burst 25 million cubic metres of water that had been sitting on top of tailings rushed into the lake gathering debris along the way and depositing it into Quesnel Lake.
A team of researchers including Selbie detailed the changes that occurred following the disaster in a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters .
“We were able to document some interesting physical relationships in the lake that moved the plume of contaminated sediment-laden water throughout the lake in the wrong direction up the flow gradient into the lake” he said.
On a map Quesnel Lake looks like an aloe vera plant with three long leaves stretching away from each other.
The dam broke at the west basin but counterintuitively the sediment made its way to the main basin.
“Everybody thought because the flow gradient is down out the Quesnel River out into the Fraser that it would go that way” he says.
“We recorded it out to the junction in October – that’s 50 kilometres in the wrong direction.” This has to do with the physical properties of the lake which pushed sediment where it wasn’t expected to go.
Following the disaster salmon were found in the lake that were larger than the size historically found though the reason has not yet been determined.
There is also concern regarding salmon spawning. Because copper impairs a fish’s ability to smell it is possible those fish present during the spill could have a hard time finding their way back.
The answer to that question is a couple of years away.
Selbie credits his career and deep interest in science to his family the Haliburton community and in particular to teachers at the high school including Dave Mowat.
“He afforded me many opportunities” Selbie says recalling a program called Sunship Earth held at Wanakita which used students from the high school to teach younger kids about the functioning of bogs forests lakes etc.
After completing his undergraduate degree at Queen’s University Selbie wrote to some of his former teachers including Mowat to thank them for their mentorship.
“Dave called me up and he was actually starting up a project here called the Drag River Rehabilitation Project” he says. Money had been allocated from the provincial government to enhance the walleye spawning habitat along the river by Emmerson Lumber in Haliburton.
The project brought youth together during the summer about 10 or 12 of them to “sling rock and build retaining walls” to line the river course. Selbie was project manager.
When he was a child Selbie’s family went on a trip to British Columbia. He remembers falling in love with the area right away. As an adult it took him little time to orient his scientific research to the West Coast.
But it is the lakes of the Highlands that originally whetted his interest in water.
“Fish don’t exist without habitat and I’ve grown up on this lake chain my whole life.”