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Metro Vancouver farmers need water [Peter Mitham]

RICHMOND – Lower Mainland municipalities keen on food security should prepare for a 25% increase in irrigated crop acreage by 2060, says one of the province’s foremost water experts.

Right now, there are more than 290,000 acres of irrigated farmland in BC. The best place to boost that total in order to meet future food needs is the Fraser Valley, says Ted van der Gulik, a retired senior engineer with the BC Ministry of Agriculture who now serves as president of the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC.

Van der Gulik made the case for greater irrigation in the Lower Mainland at a November 3 forum Metro Vancouver organized to address agricultural water issues.

The quest for food security could boost the region’s overall irrigation demand to 140.1 million cubic metres a year from the present 60.7 million cubic metres.

The fertility of the Fraser Valley as well as proximity to surface water make the region a natural location for irrigated acreage.

The big question is who will pay to get water where it will do farmers the most good.

“It’s all about infrastructure,” van der Gulik told the forum. “It could be done if we had the infrastructure dollars.”

Bruce May, a cranberry farmer in Richmond and Delta, agreed.

“There’s no shortage of water; there’s a shortage of pipes,” he said.

Emphasis on drainage

Ironically, much of the infrastructure investment to date has focused on protecting farmland from water rather than developing irrigation systems.

Some of the best farmland in the Fraser Valley is located on the floodplain and the latter half of the 20th century saw extensive investment in drainage ditches and diking systems that added to the arable land base.

Many of the systems are built to the ARDSA (Agriculture and Rural Development Subsidiary Agreement) standard, which aims to limit flooding on farmland to five days a winter.

Surrey drainage manager Carrie Baron said the city has invested more than $50 million in drainage systems and pump houses to date.

The improvements were originally intended to accommodate vegetable growers but as the region’s crop mix shifted in favour of blueberries, fruit growers took advantage of the new lands. Blueberries don’t like getting their feet wet, however, meaning drainage remained an issue in some areas.

The bigger issue, though, has been access to irrigation water in the summer. Both the Serpentine and Nicomekl rivers are closed to new water licenses and have been for 20 years but Baron suspects that many producers have unauthorized connections that have facilitated their growth.

She said new farmers – whether new to farming or new to Canada – need to be educated about what they can and cannot do, as well as their responsibilities to other users.

“We’re seeing people invest a ton of money and the resource is just not there.”

While a diversion of water from the Fraser River has been discussed, such a project would cost at least $13 million and as much as $50 million. Ongoing maintenance could add another $6,400 per acre  annually in costs.

“These are not easy solutions,” she said. “Water is not an infinite resource.”

Or rather, the financing required to get it to users is not infinite, with almost every speaker saying that the current distribution system isn’t designed for irrigation. Its focus is delivering water for drinking and fire suppression.

Other uses are effectively beyond the system’s mandate and no one’s about to pony up money to support food production, which draws about five million cubic metres annually from the regional water system.

Indeed, Metro Vancouver water policy and planning director Inder Singh told Country Life in BC during the 2015 drought that the ongoing emphasis on conservation isn’t because the supply of water is limited but because infrastructure is costly.

Singh said limiting demand is needed to ensure existing water supplies go further and that the system can effectively deliver water for the population – not the food production – to come.

“We still will want to continue on with our messaging and consumer behaviour around conservation,” Singh said. “We can build for more water [but] we don’t want to build sooner than we have to.”

Vol.102 Issue 12

CLBC Dec16 1.pdf