The alternative sources of water — wells — are successful mostly on the same flats where ground water exists close to the surface. The outer edges of higher valley terraces are generally favorable for wells, but deeper drilling is usually necessary. Exceptions of local conditions, like porous sandstone at a reasonable depth, or gravel substrata, favor springs. These occur on the north-slopes of the Bear Hills south of Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe. Such a spring supplied the village of Dawson Creek until the American Army and the contractors for the Alaska Highway boosted population from the hundreds into thousands.
Over most of the uplands — between the brinks of the deep valleys — thick tight layers of clay subsoil and glacial boulder clay hinder subsoil penetration. That same impervious clay makes possible a second alternative — “dug-outs” or “scoop-outs” for farm use, for a limited number of livestock. These dugouts hold water all year since it could not seep away.
Until the advent of mechanization few farmers could do more than dam the occasional run-off, and their domestic supply was usually an “ice house” for which blocks of river ice were laboriously cut, hauled and stored in sawdust or straw insulation in wooden sheds. Melting snow for stock over outdoor fires severely limited any ambitions to keep a lot of stock farther from a stream than they could conveniently be driven daily. Muskeg water made animals sick.
With the advent of crawler tractors and scraper equipment it is now possible to create a dugout of substantial proportions. Essentially, a dugout or scoop-out is a reservoir for collecting surface run-off and rainwater. The three requisites to overcome depletion due to use, evaporation and seepage are (1) a compact clay substratum far enough down that the reservoir will not freeze to the bottom, (2) at least 150 by 60 feet in dimensions and (3) located in a run off or depression that will drain at least 35 acres. For domestic use this requires a well or cistern for holding a quantity that can be treated for clarity and decontamination, but it demands vigilance and regular servicing. Dugouts are not practical for large number of cattle or horses. Indiscriminate aerial spraying for weeds or pests can contaminate open ponds.
Financial assistance for dugout construction can be applied for from British Columbia Department of Agriculture District Offices in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John.
As more and more clearing off of bush takes place, alternating flash floods and mid-summer drying up of natural water courses will occur more and more often — and more severely. Extensive clearing of the formerly heavily wooded north slopes of the Bear Hills has already presented flooding crises to both Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe.
Hythe has artesian wells, hence its motto, “The Town of Flowing Wells”. Further east the lakes and streams are more numerous and consequently there was no trouble with water supplies until herd laws ended free range.
Mineral deposits, if soluble in water, may be a problem. Due to glacial action and subsequent geological action, the soil may vary radically within a few miles, or even rods. Where depressions have been for any length of time, concentrations of many kinds of minerals may have occurred. In some places, such as a little fold on the hills on the north side of the Alaska Highway about four miles west of Dawson Creek, the mineral encrusts the ground. Such places were known as “salt licks” in the early days, because animals would come to them for miles to get the minerals now supplied by “salt blocks”. A salt lick was an excellent place to find game. Sometimes there was no visible salt but mud around a spring or seep would be impregnated with it. Converging game trails would show the location of the “lick”.
Under such circumstances, it was common for water to vary radically from slough to slough or farm to farm, not to speak of from district to district. For instance, the water supply at Sexsmith, Alberta in the early thirties was so very strong with a soda, that tea and coffee tasted almost the same — and equally bad — while the addition of an extremely small amount of soap to washwater would produce mountains of suds. Further west each town had a different mineral or organic problem. At Dawson Creek the village water supply from a spring on the Bear Hill south of town was incredibly soft, clear and palatable, and mineral free. When the American Army piped in hard, hard water from the river formerly known as Mud River for good reason, and the chlorination necessary to make it safe did not remove the silt and brown, organic taste, some Americans were puzzled when residents were a little less than wildly enthusiastic!
The government of Alberta had investigations and analyses made of certain natural phenomena on the banks of the Smoky River and published the findings in the booklet, Geology and Water Resources in Parts of Peace River and Grande Prairie District, Alberta (Report #21 by Ralph L. Rutherford.) Salts or oxides of iron, aluminum, calcium, magnesium, sulphur potassium and other minerals were found in the “smoking” areas where slumping or sliding banks of the river occurred. The Indians knew of these substances, and traveled long distances to collect them for medicinal purposes. On the prairies, and by people who come from the prairies, they are called “alkali”, although that is not the correct chemical name for them. Each, if present, imparts its own characteristic astringent or bitter taste or emetic effect or unpleasant smell.
When Inspector Moodie, RNWNP, traversed the area from Dunvegan to Fort St. John in the autumn of 1897 he made comments on water supply nearly every day. With the help of the best Indian guides he could employ, he was reporting on the feasibility of a wagon road to the Yukon. In his diary there are several entries reporting good feed, but lack of good water for even his relatively small packtrain. Considering the amount of clearing and draining that has been done, many of the watering places must have disappeared since his day.