Back in 2015, then provincial Environment Minister Mary Polack was looking for additional financial resources for several programs she wanted to initiate. Budget resources under the BC Liberals were tight, so she proposed that, since one of the responsibilities of her department was water resources, she would tax water usage and raise wanted funds for other projects.
She set up a committee composed of all possible stakeholders with interests in the allocation of water. She also undertook the compilation of an inventory of all water resources, including surface water and aquifers (wells). It is not clear that remote lakes were included.
One of the results of the committee’s work was to re-order the priority of access to water in the Fraser and Okanagan Valleys from agricultural to residential.
The Water Sustainability Act was passed to regulate water usage and enable collection of fees for the use of water from specified sources. It also defined five stages of drought and established corresponding allowable levels of water usage.
The higher the drought level, the greater the reduction in allowable water use. Level 4, for example, requires a 50% reduction in water usage.
That change in priority uses seemed to be inconsequential until the diversity of agriculture was taken into account.
Agricultural operations that rely upon fixed capital, such as orchards and vineyards, are adversely impacted by loss of water rights for a season — or even a month — in the spring through fall.
Loss of rights to water for more than a few weeks can mean death to vines and fruit trees and loss of income until the dead vines or trees are replaced and begin to yield crops — about three to five years.
A central question for farmers is: “How are the drought levels determined and why do the rules differ in different parts of the Okanagan basin?”
Here, all the water flows into the same river system whose minimum flow requirements are the major rationale for water usage reductions.
Moreover, a drought has to last for more than a year before the flow levels of streams and creeks that feed the lake are materially affected.
I wonder if those administering the legislation have a clear understanding of just what constitutes a drought and what its effects really are.
Faced with this regime and greater variability in climate, farmers adversely impacted by loss of predictable water rights may well look to selling their land.
The price they can expect to receive will, however, probably be limited by the fact that it lies within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
Therefore, the landowners wishing to sell may become vocal advocates for taking their land out of the ALR, thereby defeating the original purpose of retaining the lands best suited to agriculture in production.
Here is an interesting wrinkle in all this. The provincial Liberals have detested the ALR since its inception in 1973, but have probably realized that outright repeal of the legislation would be politically inexpedient.
They needed to find another means for increasing public support for limiting the power of the Agricultural Land Commission which administers the ALR.
Water restrictions seemed like a promising tool. The government bureaucracy has proved to be relentless in applying the terms of the law, sending warning letters to farmers as they perceived drought conditions increased in intensity over this current growing season.
There is bound to be some form of confrontation between farmers being denied an income and suffering loss of the assets essential for earning that income. If vineyards are killed off, wine tourism will be as well. Without wineries there is little to tour in the Okanagan.
The government needs to re-examine the Act and its implications on an urgent basis. In particular, it needs to consider the types of farming it will impact when it calls for substantial reductions in water usage. And, equally important, it has to review the performance of those in charge of the overall operation of the system, including monitoring lake levels and water flows on rivers and lesser streams.
Agriculture — and particularly the wine industry — is an essential component for the future vitality of the tourism sector in both the Fraser and Okanagan valleys. It is time to recognize that fact and stop beating the golden goose.
David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.