Groups gather to talk drought plan

The Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB) gathered together a broad section of user groups Thursday to review the current situation.

  • Aug. 16, 2015 5:00 a.m.

In response to the current drought in the Okanagan, and the increasing stress on fish, agriculture, and other water needs, the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB) gathered together a broad section of user groups Thursday to review the current situation and coordinate a plan of action.

“Water is one of our most valuable resources and we all need to work together to conserve it,” said Steve Thomson, minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations (FLNRO), who delivered opening remarks at the Okanagan Drought Response Workshop, held at the Coast Capri Hotel in Kelowna.

“With drought at its worst level in the southern interior since the province created the Drought Response Plan in 2010, it is more important than ever for people to curtail their water use now, so more will be available later in summer and fall.”

Renee Clark, Regional District of North Okanagan water quality manager, and Lee Hesketh, program coordinator for the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association, were among 10 other guest speakers.

“Our water is all connected – upstream and downstream,” said OBWB Executive Director Anna Warwick Sears, noting the significance of having all the players in the room.

“Okanagan utilities may have different sources but in a real way we’re mutually dependent on each other. We truly are all part of ‘One valley. One water.’”

For Richard Bussanich, a fisheries biologist with Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), the drought and its effect on the fish has been “sad and humbling.”

ONA has been working with all levels of government, on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, for more than 10 years to bring back the salmon fishery.

This year, they were expecting to welcome 100,000 sockeye back to their spawning grounds, plus an additional 50,000 to 100,000 for food, commercial and recreational fishing.

“This was going to be the best it had ever been since 1938, since we’ve been recording,” said Bussanich.

Now, fishing has been banned along the main stem of the Okanagan River between Okanagan Lake and Osoyoos Lake to protect existing fish stocks, and ONA is expecting a return between 18,000 and 45,000 salmon.

“We live in a fragile environment,” said Bussanich, adding that he hopes that today’s workshop is the beginning of an important discussion in the Okanagan.

“My hope is that it plants a seed and we begin to see a change in the way we live in our valley, and we can say 30 years from now, on August 13 a change began to happen.”

Hans Buchler, representative for the B.C. Agriculture Council and a grape-grower himself, notes that with the early start to the growing season this year, many producers are coming close to using their full licenced allocation of water already, with several weeks left in the growing season.

As such, he has several ideas to address the current water crisis.

For example, farmers could dramatically reduce water use for crops that have already been harvested (e.g. cherries and apricots), ensuring enough for later crops such as pears and apples, and enough for fish, he added.

In fact, said Buchler, fish should be included in agriculture as a food and considered as part of food security.

“Nobody likes water cut back, but it’s better to do it in a coordinated way,” he said.

“It’s hard to predict weather, but if this is the new normal, we really need to get our act together.”

Make Water Work is an outdoor water conservation initiative of the Water Board’s Okanagan WaterWise program and local governments and utilities throughout the Okanagan.

Residents can go and find tips to conserve, plus restrictions specific to their neighbourhood.

They can also join an increasing number of residents who are pledging to Make Water Work and be entered to win more than $8,000 in WaterWise yard prizes.