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B.C.'s drought: Agriculture sector feels the impact from prolonged dry conditions

Several regions have been under prolonged drought conditions stretching back to the fall of 2022.
Chris Moat, a B.C. farmer, seeds barley and canola stubble last month on his farm west of Dawson Creek.

This story is the first of a multi-part series running throughout June exploring the wide-ranging impacts of persistent drought conditions seen across the province since 2022. 

B.C. has been dealing with drought for the past couple of years, and for much of the province, last summer saw some of the worst conditions ever experienced. While the drought has had widespread impacts, many people in the province's agriculture sector have felt the dry conditions up close and personal.

Several regions have been under prolonged drought conditions stretching back to the fall of 2022, according to Dave Campbell, head of the BC River Forecast Centre.

He said last summer was one of the worst years for drought on record, “by a few metrics.”

“Many, maybe even most locations around the province, at least one of the last two years have been the driest on record for many sites,” Campbell said. “Places like up in the northeast, where the two driest years on record are the last two years.”

'Water wars'

Problems brought on by drought came to a head last August in the small rural community of Westwold, located along Highway 97 between Kamloops and Vernon.

As the Okanagan recorded its driest moisture levels on record in August 2023, the province issued a fish protection order on the Salmon River, which required forage crop farmers in the Salmon River Valley to turn off their taps completely.

This led to pushback from local farmers looking to protect their livelihood, something Doug Haughton, director for Thompson-Nicola Regional District Electoral Area L, described as the “water wars.”

“To me, it wasn't handled well at all by the government,” Haughton said.

“They didn't communicate at all, they came in with their hammers, if you want to use that term, and their soldiers with their guns, their [Natural Resource Officers].

"You don't treat human beings like that, you don't treat farmers that have water rights for over 100 years like that, and basically telling them what to do. Basically not a hell of a lot of reasoning, and when you start doing that, the war is on.”

While he didn't have an exact number, he said many farmers were impacted by the water restrictions.

Haughton said he spoke with several ministers about their handling of the situation at the Union of BC Municipalities convention this past September, and he thinks the government has been taking his suggestions to heart.

“They've done a lot to address that, so I'll give them lots of credit for that,” he said. “Don't kid yourself, those people in Westwold who've got water licences, they have their own records, their own data, their own way of determining the ground water and everything else. They're not some old school folks. And the ministry knows that, and they'll hopefully work with them.

“There's nothing like walking on to a farmer's yard when you're a Water Stewardship person or a Ministry of Ag [Agriculture] person. One on one is better than emails or a seminar. ...I give them credit there, so we'll see what the rest of '24 brings. Ask me again in August, September and I'll tell you what happens.”

Campbell said there were water supply issues elsewhere in B.C., like Robson Valley and the Sunshine Coast, and with low streamflows and high temperatures, “it's anticipated that that certainly had an impact on fish habitats.”

With a record-breaking 2023 wildfire season due in part to tinder-dry forests, Campbell said the drought has had “wide-reaching impacts.”

Last June, the B.C. government announced new funding for the Agricultural Water Infrastructure Program, which provides $80 million for farmers to make their irrigation more efficient, or to build new infrastructure.

Too early to tell

This past winter saw less-than-normal snowfall on B.C. mountains, resulting in a low snowpack. This has stoked fears of another rough drought year, but cooler temperatures and moderate rainfall this May has helped conditions somewhat.

“We have seen some improvements and things have been closer to normal for rainfall, particularly in the south half of the province. ...At least in the last month,” Campbell said.

“It's been a little bit cooler, and that's been helpful with the snowpack, and how we're melting the snowpack more recently. ...The trend we've seen in terms of that melt so far has been fairly gradual.”

As a result of some recent rains, the Okanagan's drought level was downgraded back to Level 1 on the province's zero to five scale, while other Interior regions remain at Level 2. Last August, many regions in B.C. were classified at the highest rating, Level 5, where “adverse impacts to socio-economic or ecosystem values are almost certain.”

Parts of B.C's northeast regions are already classified as a Level 5 drought, having started the spring season at a water deficit due to the low snowpack.

But it's still too early in the year to know with certainty what conditions will look like in late summer.

“I think we really need to see prolonged wetter-than-normal weather through the summer to alleviate some of the concerns that we have,” Campbell said.

“It's difficult to predict where things will go this year, particularly because the rain is so important. But certainly the set up for this year, the conditions that we're coming into the season with, and that expectation of the hot summer is of a concern for another year of more significant drought.”

While some B.C. farmers may be struggling to adapt to drier conditions, drought conditions are the least of the problems for fruit growers in B.C. After an extreme cold snap this past January, some fruit tree farmers and wine growers are facing complete crop loss this summer.

Investments for the future

But when it comes to drought, Sukhpaul Bal, BC Cherry Association president and Kelowna cherry farmer, said fruit tree farmers in the Okanagan are well prepared with water reservoirs to ensure irrigation can continue through the dry months.

“We're lucky that investments, many, many years ago, went into reservoir storage,” Bal said, referring specifically to the Black Mountain Irrigation District.

“[That] storage that we have up in the Graystoke [area] helps us in these very tough years. When drought is in the forecast, we can release gradually when we need that water at the right time. We actually have plans to increase that storage, but we're running into quite a bit of red tape and regulations and also an overall lack of funding.”

Looking towards the future, Campbell said climate modelling shows B.C. is actually expected to see general increases in annual rainfall, although how that precipitation is spaced out over the year will likely change.

“Some of that may be tied up with expectations of wetter seasons being wetter, and drier seasons potentially being drier,” Campbell said.

“From a drought perspective, continuing to see pressures kind of what we've been seeing the past couple years ...Certainly the patterns that we've seen the past few years is something that we would expect to become more frequent.”