GIBSONS – With a growing number of watersheds reaching Level 4 drought restrictions or higher, some farmers say regulators need to make greater allowances for food production.
Sunshine Coast Regional District recently implemented Level 4 drought restrictions which prohibit all outdoor water use, including for agriculture.
That doesn’t sit well with Raquel Kolof of Hough Heritage Farm in Gibsons and president of the Sunshine Coast Farmers Institute.
“All farmers, including commercial food farmers, were cut off from outdoor water use on August 10, 2021, as the SCRD went into stage 4 water restrictions on the Sunshine Coast,” she says. “[But] breweries, distilleries and industrial cannabis grow ops have unrestricted water use simply due to the fact that their operations are indoors.”
The farmers institute promptly sent a letter to the Sunshine Coast Regional District asking it to exempt soil-based farmers from the restrictions. It had previously changed the rules in 2019 to exempt farmers until Level 4, but Kolof says allowing industrial users to draw water while prohibiting growers from watering their crops doesn’t make sense.
“Water restrictions based on indoor versus outdoor water use are arbitrary, unfair and not in the best interest of our communities’ need for food security, nor our aquifer’s and ecosystem’s long-term health,” the letter says. “Soil-based farming supports our ecosystem and reverses climate change. Soil-based farmers with healthy living crops and livestock-grazed pastures sequester carbon. This carbon drawdown into living roots feeds our soil microbiome and cools our climate.”
The letter also notes that healthy pastures, cropland and orchards also support wildlife and feed pollinators, which are essential to the food supply as well as being an environmental benefit.
Nature Tech Nursery
co-owner Thom O’Dell in Courtenay also flags the environmental benefits of maintaining agricultural water use.
Drought ratings in two watersheds in the Comox Valley are at Level 4, a stage at which adverse impacts become likely. While maintaining stream flows protects fish, O’Dell would like to see the province support greater investment in on-farm water management.
Nature Tech has yet to hear back regarding its water licence application 19 months after submission and is now considering whether or not to develop a dugout for water storage.
“We hope that the province will implement funding for water storage as it is increasingly clear that we need to do much more to adapt to climate change,” he says. “We think that is a simple and cost-effective contribution that would serve complementary goals of assisting small farmers to be more sustainable in terms of their water use while also enhancing conservation efforts for salmon and other riparian species by reducing the use of surface water by farmers in the growing season.”
Courtenay beef producer Brad Chappell of Heart of the Valley Farms says the federal government also needs to step up.
“If the federal government truly wants to help agriculture, they should develop a plan through grants and financing in regions to develop off-stream and extra watering facilities like dugouts and wells,” he says.
Courtenay organic producer Arzeena Hamir has ensured a stable supply of water for her four acres of vegetables with a dugout she built in 2015. It stores 500,000 gallons of water, augmenting what her well delivers.
Water access is most acute in the Koksilah watershed, one of a growing number of watersheds in the province now rated Level 5, when a “high likelihood of significant irreversible harm to the aquatic ecosystem” are almost certain.
Growers along the Koksilah River became the first in the province to face restrictions under BC’s Water Sustainability Act in 2019 when water access was cut as stream flows fell below 180 litres per second.
“All the streams and wells that are in the Koksilah watershed and support the river and are used for irrigation were also included,” says David Tattam, a producer and environmental farm plan advisor. To manage the risk, a group of 19 producers developed an irrigation scheduling system that sees half of them irrigate four days then the other half irrigate for four days during drought conditions. This approach helped maintain water use until midnight on August 17 when the province once again cut off users as flow levels dropped.
However, some farmers in the area decided not to irrigate at all this year, says Tattam.
“They have to put so much water on that it wasn’t cost effective,” he explains. “Farmers take a pretty big hit financially even with the scheduling. It’s better than no irrigation but you’re only irrigating half the time. They reduce the opportunity of getting second and third crops off. … We’re hoping in the future that we can come up with something better than scheduling and find opportunities to develop access to water.”
Secure access to water will be key for agricultural production to continue in BC. This point was highlighted in a 2006 report for the province, which estimated that an additional 92,000 hectares of irrigated farmland would be needed by 2025 for BC farmers to continue supplying 48% of the province’s food supply.
Climate change, and the responses of local government, has only exacerbated the importance of secure access to water.
The urgency of the situation is prompting some producers to get political.
Cammy and James Lockwood of Lockwood Farms in Cobble Hill have 6,000 laying hens and a market garden, both of which suffered during this summer’s heat waves. They did their best to keep the lettuce and brassicas cool so it wouldn’t go to seed but still lost about 4,000 heads of lettuce.
“Plants were literally just getting scorched. On the nursery side, a lot of the leaves just burnt even when they were well watered,” says Cammy, noting that the farm’s well struggled to keep up with demand.
Growers in the eastern Fraser Valley also made huge demands on their aquifers, and Lockwood says governments need to pay attention.
“I feel not enough is being done about this,” she says. “The government is not treating it like the crisis it is. Food security is at top of mind through the wildfires and heat dome.”
This summer’s events pushed Lockwood to become more politically involved in her region and she will support the Green Party in the upcoming federal election.
“As farmers, we are on the front lines of the climate crisis and it’s getting harder and harder to grow food,” Lockwood says.
With files from Barbara Johnstone Grimmer