Water, Water Everywhere

by admin on September 12, 2009

Agriculture creates the rural character of the Okanagan Valley so valued by residents and tourists alike. The valley produces 25% of the total value of British Columbia’s agriculture, and is the province’s major producer of apples, peaches, pears, and other tree fruits. The valley is also famous for its grapes and many wineries. Vegetables and forage crops that support milk and meat production are also important. Agriculture occupies about 70% of the developed valley lands, and accounts for about the same proportion of water use.

from: Okanagan Basin Waterscape by Natural Resources Canada

Approaching Kelowna BC from above Okanagan Lake, a tourist could be forgiven for thinking that the least of the city’s problems is water. The lake itself is huge, extending out of sight in both directions. Water recreation is obviously one of the area’s draws, judging from visible boats. And in September the orchards above the lake are deep green.

Okanagan Lake is a huge body of water, but much of that water is “old”, meaning that it has accumulated over a long period of time and is slowly recharged. According to hydrologists who have studied it, the lake is unable to sustain significant withdrawals without a lowering of its level, something that would be particularly disastrous for the many marinas around the shore. And the recharge ability of the small streams that feed the lake has recently come into question. Reporting on drought conditions developing in the Okanagan, the Columbia Valley News had this to say on July 24, 2009:

Inflows to Okanagan Lake have been well below normal for the past 12 months, and are ranked as the fifth-lowest since measurement began in 1918.

Adding to stress on the water resources of this semi-arid basin is rapid population growth. Population has doubled in the past two decades, to somewhere around 300,000. Irrigated agriculture may take 70% of the water, but the towns and cities are where the demand growth is. This situation has the ingredients of a classic farm-city water conflict.

In the late 70’s an organization was formed to bring together all of the water stakeholders in the region. Named the Okanagan Basin Water Board, it has representatives from urban, agricultural, and first nations groups. Originally the group concentrated on milfoil weed abatement and water quality, but it appears that the focus has shifted to water sharing.

Canada’s water law comes from the English tradition, and thus has a riparian tendency, although with some features borrowed from US appropriation laws. My suspicion so far is that the tendency here is to begin cooperating at an earlier stage than in the US, but I’ll have to study more to really understand if that’s the case.

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