Farmers and ranchers in Westwold are incensed over a fish protection order that has cut off water needed to irrigate crops that will see them through winter, and voiced their frustrations at a community meeting Saturday morning.
The B.C. government placed a fish protection order on the Salmon River on Aug. 16, saying Level 4 and 5 drought conditions have caused stream flows to become so low that the survival of spawning chinook salmon has become threatened. Under the order, forage crop farmers in Westwold are unable to irrigate until at least Sept. 30.
A video documentary was swiftly created, focused on the difficulty Westwold farmers face in light of the water shut-off that was put in place “during a crucial part of their crop cycle.”
The documentary caught the attention of the public outside of Westwold, as well as a number of politicians. More than 200 people and seven MLAs attended the meeting at the Westwold Community Hall Sept. 2. BC United leader Kevin Falcon was in attendance, flanked by Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo, Kamloops—South Thompson MLA Todd Stone, Kamloops—North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar, Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson, Delta South MLA Ian Paton and Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart.
The politicians promised to hear the concerns of locals and bring them back to Victoria.
Falcon accused the B.C. government of being an “urban government” that is disconnected from issues that affect people in rural areas such as Westwold.
Bob Jones, 82, took the mic as the first resident to speak. He said he’s lived on the Salmon River all his life and has 20 years experience testing the water.
“To me this water in the Salmon River has not changed,” he said. “We have had dry seasons similar to what we have this year, the salmon are still spawning.”
He said it’s not unusual for the Salmon River to be unsuitable for salmon for extended periods of the year.
“Nine months of the year the salmon can’t swim,” he said, adding the Salmon River “does not run above the surface in Westwold. It’s dry.”
Another resident, a dairy farmer, questioned why some in the area are able to irrigate while forage crop farmers that need to feed their livestock can’t.
“Why in their wisdom did they decide that berries and fruit are more important than beef or livestock?” he said, adding forage farmers contribute to local food security in the form of products such as dairy and beef.
The community meeting became more emotionally charged as it progressed, with some farmers tearing up as they expressed fears that their livelihoods are at risk.
One farmer said she was forced to sell some of her cows because she didn’t have feed for them.
Another resident said it was “disrespectful” of the government not to have a representative present at the community meeting to explain the now two-week old decision.
Some residents have reported receiving fines of $500 or more for watering against the order.
Towards the end of the meeting, and in spite of the risk of fines, one resident put his question plainly to the officials before him: “Can we turn the water on today?”
MLA Stone replied: “If government doesn’t show up, if government refuses to meet with you, if government refuses to answer your questions … I would turn my ****ing water on.”
Earlier, Stone had told the crowd he has requested a meeting with the government to discuss the scientific rationale for the order.
“To date, no one has heard from them,” he said. However, he added the Ministry of Forests issued a statement to a media outlet Friday evening. The Ministry of Forests could not be reached for comment as of Saturday afternoon, however, Stone quoted the ministry as saying: “After significant studies of aquifers in the Westwold area, the expert scientific opinion is that the aquifers are connected to surface water. This means that removing water from the aquifers … has direct and meaningful impacts on the water levels and streams within the watershed, in this case the Salmon River.”