© Ramon Grosso | Dreamstime.com
There’s nothing like the Okanagan on a warm summer’s day. Tourists and locals enjoy swimming or boating in one of the valley’s sparkling blue lakes, or swinging a golf club on an emerald green golf course. The sun shines on the acres of well-irrigated orchards, vineyards, and hayfields.
It appears to be an environment where nature is in harmony, and a plentiful supply of water fuels both tourism and agriculture.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true. The Okanagan is one of the driest regions in Canada, and among those most at risk of suffering severe water shortages over the next 30 years.
“The stakes are high when it comes to managing water in the Okanagan,” says Okanagan Water Board executive director Anna Warwick Sears. “We have less water available to us than almost anywhere else in Canada, but we use at least two times more than the average Canadian.”
About 675 litres per person of water is consumed in the Okanagan, while the Canadian average is only 329 litres.
“The Okanagan is one of the best places in the world to live, and if we want to keep it that way we need to stop wasting water.”
The future of water use in the Okanagan basin is most important to the farmers and vineyard managers who depend on it for their livelihoods. No water, no crops. No crops, no business.
That may explain why farmers as a whole have been more responsive when it comes to changing their ways, says Brian Symonds, regional director of the BC government’s Water Stewardship Branch.
“Most farmers are really trying to do the right thing about water,” Symonds says. "They’ve done a lot of work to find efficiencies and there have been very significant advances in the past few decades. That’s a good sign that people are open to the conversation.”
But Symonds and other experts in water conservation say there is still a long way to go, and the stakes are very high.
Rising global temperatures have already caused significant water shortages in several parts of the world, and the impact in BC can primarily be seen in the shrinking glacier fields and smaller snowpacks.
Glaciologist Garry Clarke at the University of BC estimated in 2011 that many of the glaciers we see today will disappear by 2100, and others will shrink to less than 20 per cent of their current size. As well, Symonds says decreased snowpacks and increased evaporation of water from the surface of Okanagan Lake will have an unknown but significant impact on water supplies.
That’s the bad news, but Symonds says there’s good news too.
“People remember what happened in 2003 when we had unprecedented forest fires, and the level of the lake lowered quite significantly because we were basically mining the lake,” he says. “We were taking out more than was going back in, and the levels dropped.
“Now, people and governments and organizations really are trying to make changes, and things are improving.”
Symonds says the alarming events in California, Nevada and Arizona are also driving change. The worst drought in 119 years is hitting farmers hard in California’s lush Central Valley, while Lake Mead, a gigantic reservoir just outside Las Vegas, has seen its levels plummeting for several years.
Symonds says the Okanagan is facing a water problem, but the US southwest is facing a water crisis.
“In a way it may be good we’re seeing this, because when we look at the droughts in California and Arizona we can learn from that and not do the same things that led them to a situation where they are taking more water out than the watersheds can supply,” he says.
The bad news, obviously, is that the Okanagan may need to supply more people with less water, but the good news is there is time to adapt, and water experts like Symonds and Warwick Sears say that has to happen in both the urban and agricultural areas.
Farmers take up more than half of all water use in the Okanagan Water Basin … but irrigating lawns and gardens takes up one-quarter of water use, and provides few economic benefits.
Densifying the cities and towns with smaller yards or condos, combined with using landscaping techniques that require very little water could have a massive impact on water use.
On the agricultural side, farmers can continue to replant with species that are conducive to drip irrigation (such as dwarf apple trees), or choose crops that use less water. For example, one-third of the Okanagan’s agricultural land is used for forage crops like hay which need much more water than vineyards or orchards.
The major barrier, however, has nothing to do with technology, but with political will.
“We are improving, but we are far from being the best in terms of water conservation,” says Symonds. “The good news is that we have some time, and I do believe we can avoid the kinds of water crises they’ve suffered in the United States.
“But to do that we have to make choices and act on them, so we reduce our water use before it becomes a crisis.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Switch to drip irrigation on the farm
- Use sensors to measure irrigation in soil before irrigating
- Choose crops that need less water
- Encourage cities to densify, and subdivide large properties
- Lobby for xeriscaping regulations in municipalities
- Use ‘xeriscaping’ practices in your yard to reduce water use
- Let your lawn go a bit brown in summer (sorry!)