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Changes in water flows south of the border worrisome for BC orchardists [Glen Lucas]

Washington State legislators have received a sobering report regarding the outlook for water supplies in the state’s interior.

The report, formally known as the Columbia River Basin Long-Term Water Supply and Demand Forecast, is important to BC tree fruit and vegetable sectors. Tree fruit and potato production in eastern Washington is up to 50 times that of BC. (We were once equals.) Washington has become the dominant supplier and therefore price leader in the North American marketplace. This means if Washington sneezes, BC catches a cold.

Overproduction of apples and potatoes in Washington is devastating for BC producers. Since the 1980s, the two sectors have successfully pursued anti-dumping protection for five-year terms. In fact, potato anti-dumping protection has been in place for more than 30 years.

Climate projections for eastern Washington hold a potential impact on the area’s agricultural producers, though it’s a complex and uncertain story. By 2035, surface water supply between November and May – when irrigation water is not needed – is projected to increase 28.6%. However, water supply in the critical irrigation season is projected to decline by 10.6%. There will be plenty of water, but at the wrong time of year. This is a function of wetter, warmer winters resulting in less storage of water in the high-elevation snowpacks that feed streams and rivers as melt occurs during the growing season.

Counterbalancing the reduction of irrigation water are two factors. Water demand in Washington is forecast to decline by 4.9%, mainly due to conversion of high water-use pasture to other crops, and water stored in the reservoirs on the Columbia River could be released later in the season for irrigation purposes.

On the Canadian side, those  reservoirs are controlled by the Columbia River Treaty. The three Canadian reservoirs (Duncan, Keenleyside and Mica) can store an incredible 15.5 million acre feet of water. Take a volume defined by an area of one acre and a height of 2,935 miles, and there you have 15.5 million acre feet – or about 19 trillion litres. That’s a lot of dammed water.

When Canada agreed to store this water, it was for the purposes of hydro power generation and flood control. (In 1964, when the treaty was ratified, aboriginal rights and environmental flows were not considered – a disaster for salmon and the fishing-dependent aboriginal communities. The treaty also didn’t address the storage of water for agricultural use, though that is clearly an important consideration as eastern Washington has an extensive irrigation canal system that rivals California’s – a canal system that needs adequate flows during irrigation season.)

Climate change is also pinching the availability of water flows during the growing season, especially when projected to 2035.

Pressure is on

The pressure is on. Aboriginal, environmental and agricultural demands for water flows in Washington need to be satisfied.

A further wrinkle is the Odessa aquifer. It supplies irrigation water in Washington through a series of wells and is being depleted (some might say is depleted). In order to preserve agricultural production in the area, increased diversions of water from the Columbia are needed to supply local irrigation needs. These withdrawals are not included in the 2035 projections.

The increased need for water in the Odessa area may be offset by water conservation and earlier maturing crops. However, as crops mature earlier, that could lead to more double-cropping, extending the irrigation season into the lowest water flow period.

Overall, the projections for Washington through 2035 are gloomy, especially if the Columbia River Treaty isn’t modified to reflect the important role Canadian reservoirs play in the storage and release of irrigation water.

While this water provides incredible economic value to Washington growers, BC producers suffer collateral damage when BC directs water to crop production in Washington.

The BC Fruit Growers’ Association and the BC Potato and Vegetable Growers’ Association want recognition of this financial impact. The recent report to Washington legislators concludes, “It is noteworthy that, even with an overall increase in annual water supplies, this shift in supply away from the season of highest water demand has the potential to cause increased water stress throughout the Columbia River Basin.”

Glen Lucas is the general manager of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association.

Vol.103 Issue 1

Bright Greens