‘Unfair’ groundwater restrictions blindside BC farmers and ranchers

Written By Rob Shaw

“This is not a long-term plan for growing food in British Columbia.”

––Jeremy Dunn

B.C.’s cattle and dairy sectors are slamming the provincial government over new emergency water orders that have cut some of their farmers off from growing hay and corn for their livestock during a widespread feed shortage.

Industry leaders, who stood publicly with Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis last month when she promised provincial drought assistance, say they’ve been blindsided by government water restrictions that, in their view, aren’t backed up with science and are mostly just public relations.

“This is not a long-term plan for growing food in British Columbia,” said Jeremy Dunn, general manager of the BC Dairy Association.

“It is very unclear to our farmers why certain people can use water and they can’t for their crops. It’s creating conflict in communities. And there is currently no long term strategy in British Columbia to deal with ensuring we have adequate water supply in our watersheds to deal with the water users.”

Salmon protections trump forage crops

The government cut off 398 surface and groundwater users in the lower Salmon River and Bessette Creek areas of the Thompson-Okanagan on Aug. 16, saying it needed to preserve water levels for spawning chinook salmon.

Farmers watering hay, grass, corn and alfalfa were ordered to stop, but those needing irrigation for vegetables and livestock were allowed to continue. 

“The production of forage is key to the survival of our livestock and businesses.”

Lower Salmon River watershed Farmers

Government also cut off 45 users on the Tsolum River near Courtenay, on Vancouver Island, using the same rationale.

“By restricting water access to water-intensive forage crops, we’re also ensuring there’s water available for livestock, fruit and vegetable producers,” Alexis said in a statement.

However, that’s not how some residents see it.

A group of farmers in the lower Salmon River watershed, east of Kamloops, wrote Alexis and Forests Minister Bruce Ralston a letter demanding a meeting, arguing that cutting off water for feed during a drought, and in a year of hay and grain shortages, is compounding their devastation by robbing them of the ability to feed their own livestock.

“The production of forage is key to the survival of our livestock and businesses,” reads the letter, signed by 18 people. 

“Agriculture is deemed to be an essential service to the province, except when fish are concerned. We require some immediate answers as to the science behind this order and what consideration has been given to our animals as well.”

Restrictions based on faulty data, says MLA

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone said the province is basing the decision on faulty data, because it never completed studies of local aquifers or groundwater sources in the area. Most of the farmers are using wells that tie into aquifers 60 metres underground, and which would have little impact on the flow of the lower Salmon River, he said.

Groundwater studies across the province were promised as part of 2014’s Water Sustainability Act, which required people to register for groundwater licences by March 2022. But the province has largely failed to complete those studies, said Stone. 

“There’s no possible way someone accessing water out of a 200-foot well … [impacts] a stream that far above.”

Todd Stone

“This is an order intended to generate a feel-good response from British Columbians that the government is doing what it can to protect salmon stocks during this drought,” said Stone.

“And I think all British Columbians are unified in wanting to protect salmon. But we should also demand of government that the decisions and strategies to do that are actually directly related to the fate of salmon and will have a positive impact.

“There’s no possible way someone accessing water out of a 200-foot well, in an aquifer that deep underground, is impacting in any way, positively or negatively, a stream that far above.”

Ralston said the agriculture needs were considered.

“It is a tough choice, but it’s one that we’ve made in order to protect this particular salmon river system,” he said.

‘At what cost?’

Cattle ranchers, who are scrambling to find hay to feed their herds after much of B.C.’s supply was wiped out by drought and wildfires, say shutting off water to some of the remaining hay producers is the opposite of what the province should be doing.

“I get trying to save fish, that’s one of the things we have to look out for, but at what cost?” said Kevin Boon, general manager of the BC Cattlemen’s Association. “At what cost to everything else?”

Many of the lower Salmon River farmers had voluntarily curtailed watering already, and have purchased efficient irrigation systems.

“It is unfair treatment to expect us to immediately shut down systems that we have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in, that are our insurance that we will not have a crop failure and will help to keep us safe from wildfires, without an explanation of the science which supports the shutdown or anything more than an order saying we can’t access the water we have a licensed right to use,” read their letter.

“It is unfair treatment to expect us to immediately shut down systems that we have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in.”

Lower Salmon River farmers

“We take exception to the manner in which many of us were served notice with no consideration to our privacy or biosecurity measures we have in place to protect our livestock and livelihood.”

AgriRecovery disaster relief program hangs in limbo

The water restrictions come at a crucial time in the maturation of corn, which could jeopardize months of work and expense.

There’s also widespread confusion over a promised AgriRecovery disaster relief program that Alexis last month said she would push for from the federal government. No aid has been announced, and Ottawa has yet to commit to the program.

“People are feeling abandoned by this government, and this is just another example of government paying lip service to agriculture,” said Stone.

“This minister does talk a big game about the importance of agriculture but when it comes down to policies that clearly have a very negative impact on agricultural production, and are not based in any science or data, the government doesn’t hesitate to throw the farmers under the bus.”

Alexis declined an interview request.

Dairy and cattle ranchers both want to see long-term funding from the province to help farmers build water tanks and reservoirs in areas that will be vulnerable to future drought, so that their needs can be met without endangering other water users and salmon.

The province does have a $20 million agriculture water infrastructure program, but the money is spread over three years and falls well short of the scale of investment needed to address the effects of climate change on the sector.

‘Agriculture does not get a lot of respect’

The ripple effect of the water restrictions — less feed grown and less feed available, could lead to ranchers selling their cattle because they can’t afford to keep them. That, in turn, endangers the security of B.C.’s dairy and beef supply.

“Agriculture does not get a lot of respect in this province,” said Boon. “We talk a lot about food security, but people don’t necessarily understand what it is.

“To be quite frank, it’s taken for granted that the food will always be there, because people have never been hungry. Most consumers, as long as they see it on the grocery shelf, there isn’t a problem and don’t necessarily understand the challenges of getting that food to the table.”

“It’s taken for granted that the food will always be there.”

Kevin Boon

In the meantime, the lower Salmon River farmers wait to see if they’ll get their meeting with government. Even if they do, it’s not clear any of the water orders will change.

Dunn said he’s not optimistic.

“Unfortunately right now the strategy is to pray for rain.”