$80 million for water infrastructure welcomed, but may not help farmers this summer

Written By Rob Shaw

B.C. is quadrupling financial aid for the agriculture sector to help it secure more water, as the province projects a second consecutive summer gripped by severe drought. But whether the money can be deployed quickly enough to make a difference this year, and whether the province continues its policy of cutting off farmers first during water restrictions, remain issues of concern for farmers.

Premier David Eby announced $80 million for the Agriculture Water Infrastructure Program last week, which reimburses farmers for up to 75 per cent of costs related to building or improving things like irrigation, water storage, piping and farm dams.

“Water is critical for farmers, for animals, for crops, for feed,” Eby said.

“When they have to take significant measures to be able to, for example, feed cattle by importing feed, or moving cattle around, or they have to cull their herd because they aren’t sure whether or not they’re going to be able to actually feed their cattle, the end impact is not just hurt for them and for their families and for their businesses and the communities they live in, but also for consumers at the grocery store. They see higher prices.”

The agriculture, ranch and dairy communities reacted mostly positively to the money. 

Each was hit in a different way with last year’s drought, with the ranch and dairy communities suffering a feed shortage as fire, heat and drought devastated hay crops. Some farmers chose to auction off their herds due to uncertainty over whether they would be able to afford to feed them.

‘Water is the foundation of life’

Last summer’s crisis sparked a flurry of activity, and engaged the premier directly.

Werner Stump, a Shuswap rancher and vice-president of the BC Cattlemen’s Association, said he began meeting with the premier five months ago to encourage the investment in water, and is appreciative the government listened.

“Water is the foundation of all life, it’s critical for agriculture and it’s critical for food security,” he said.

“Without water for agriculture, the agricultural land reserve is practically meaningless. B.C. is blessed with an abundant supply of water overall, the problem arises in times of peak flow and we see flooding and in times of drought, where we see scarcity.”

“[Water] is critical for agriculture and it’s critical for food security.”

Werner Stump

Ranchers are well-aware of new provincial forecasts that estimate less seasonal rain, smaller snowpacks, worse wildfires and persistent drought conditions.

“Spring is normally a season of optimism,” said Stump. “But you know, really, in the back of our minds, it hasn’t really left us since last summer, the fact that we’re probably going to be dealing with a water scarcity situation again in 2024.”

The Cattlemen’s Association last year was gripped by the feed crisis, which rippled through ranches across the province. So was the BC Dairy Association.

Both groups pushed B.C. hard last year to think beyond just the usual response, which included pointing to crop insurance and securing pre-payments of federal AgriStability grants.

“We need predictable and reliable access to water to grow crops to feed our cows.”

Casey Pruim

“Dairy farmers are resilient and want to produce local healthy food for the people of British Columbia,” said Casey Pruim, a Fraser Valley farmer, dairy rancher and board chair of BC Dairy.

“In order to do that, we need predictable and reliable access to water to grow crops to feed our cows and in turn to make dairy products available to communities all around this province.”

Funding won’t help farmers this summer, says critic

The money supercharges a farm infrastructure program that, at $20 million the previous year, had limited impact. The fund, like all government programs, contains numerous prerequisites and hurdles for eligibility, plus auditing requirements.

“There will be so much red tape involved, that’s the biggest problem in doling out money to agriculture right now,” said BC United agriculture critic Ian Paton. 

“In a lot of parts of this province, people don’t have cell phone service or internet service and they don’t know how to apply for this money.”

The funding being announced in March means it’s unlikely to get dispersed and used in any meaningful way before this upcoming drought, said Paton.

“It’s certainly too late for any of that money to be used this summer,” he said.

Farmers are first to lose access during water scarcity

The new money also doesn’t address a major concern farmers had during last summer — that when water becomes scarce they are often the first ones cut off by the government. 

Several farm operations saw their access to nearby rivers and watersheds restricted by the government during the peak of the drought, which they complained made it almost impossible to continue to operate.

Lands Minister Nathan Cullen, who recently also became responsible for water, said the key is to better use water planning tables at local levels, so farmers, ranchers, the province, First Nations and municipal users can be on the same page about what happens when drought worsens.

“Water restrictions are the last resort.”

Nathan Cullen

But he acknowledged the government has not changed its laws or policies since last year, when farms were cut off.

“Water restrictions are the last resort,” he said. 

“And the reason that we’re spending money on prevention, the reason that we’re assisting farmers and ranchers right now build that infrastructure, is so that we don’t have to get to that place of last resort in which restrictions are issued.”

Some of the farm water cutoffs come due to federal rules in nearby rivers designed to protect species at risk, like salmon, said Cullen.

“We are guided very strongly by the law of the land.”

Water must be prioritized for food security, warns rancher

The major agricultural players warned against a repeat of last summer, where they had to fight to have their voices heard.

“Prioritizing water for food security, through an agricultural water reserve in local water sustainability plans will be important,” said Werner, who added “continuing the work towards livestock water regulation to protect livestock” is important as well.

“Last summer, many farmers and ranchers were significantly impacted by curtailment orders at the most critical time of their growing season,” said Ray VanMarrewyk’s, a member of the BC Agriculture Council Board and owner of Westcoast Vegetables, where Eby announced the new funding this week.

“Without water, farmers and ranchers simply cannot provide a reliable supply of agricultural products to British Columbians.”

Eby said the money is only one part of the government’s response to climate change, and the threats it has placed on food and farm security in the agriculture sector.