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Who gets first dibs on water? BC Greens say farmers

The BC Green Party is calling for changes in the way the province deals with drought to ensure both farmers and the environment have access to enough water to flourish as climate change advances.

Arzeena Hamir, the Green candidate for Courtenay-Comox, said the party aims to make it easier and cheaper for farmers to build dugouts on farms that capture and store rainwater, seek amnesty for farmers facing large fines for unlicensed water use, and ensure water for farming food and protecting nature takes precedence over clear-cut logging in watersheds, commercial bottling needs, or to frack for gas during droughts.

<who> Photo Credit: Submitted</who>Arzeena Hamir, the BC Green candidate for Courtenay-Comox

Hamir, an agronomist and farmer in the Comox Valley, said the health of the region hinges on responsible water and watershed management that prioritizes conservation over corporate interests.

Much of Northeastern BC continues to experience severe or extreme drought due to water shortages that started last summer with little relief or precipitation over the winter.

And provincial snowpacks are alarmingly low this year — sitting at 57% of normal for June across BC and at 31% of normal on Vancouver Island. Should dry weather arrive as summer advances there will be little meltwater available to replenish streams and aquifers.

Eastern Vancouver Island is currently sitting at drought level one, where environmental or social-economic impacts are rare, but the region has suffered significant droughts five of the last six summers, with the Koksilah and Tsolum watersheds being hotspots of concern.

Hamir wants to see the province eliminate the "First in Time, First in Right" principle, which prioritizes access to water for historical license holders over newer license holders regardless of how the resource is used. This means a commercial bottling plant, oil and gas exploration, or irrigation of a golf course could get priority access to water over growing crops.

Water use needs to be equitable and reflective of the values and needs of communities, she said.

“This will require a change in the Water Sustainability Act (WSA), as it currently does not prioritize food production over … other industrial uses,” she said.

The party is also calling for a new “water management table” in the Comox Valley, which would include First Nations, local government, farmers, and industry.

Climate change has been causing extreme heat as well as cold, floods and drought, often paired with destructive wildfires, all of which have repeatedly battered food producers across BC. in recent years, Hamir said. Cherry and wine grape growers are already in dire straits this season following last year’s savage fires followed by severe winter cold snaps.

“Drought on top is an added stress to our food system at a time when farmers are already suffering from multiple years of low moisture,” Hamir said.

There’s an urgent need to streamline the process for farmers looking to dig dugouts or other water-storage solutions on their land, Hamir stressed, but said the time and costs for securing licenses for dugouts relying on groundwater or streams is too onerous — as are expensive rules, such as lining dugouts to prevent water seeping into the ground or to prevent groundwater from entering the water-storage structures.

“It’s only within the last three years that the province has deemed dugouts to require a license and there doesn’t seem to be a way to grandfather farmers who already have them in place.”

Hamir is also looking for amnesty for farmers facing substantially higher fines for unauthorized use of water.

After changes to the Water Sustainability Act in 2016, commercial groundwater users had to apply for licenses by March 2022. But by last summer many had not, prompting government orders to some users in drought-stricken areas to turn off the taps. To step up compliance, the province created new regulations this year to allow it to fine those who violate the Act up to $100,000 for a general offense and up to $500,000 for serious penalties.

“I’m concerned that the government is literally setting up a system to commodify water and enable those with means to have access while penalizing those who haven’t the ability to jump through regulatory hoops,” Hamir said.

Additionally, to prepare for potential drought, the province hosted upwards of 30 drought and water management workshops in communities across the province this spring. It also allocated $80 million in the last budget to help producers with the cost of improving dugouts or water storage and irrigation systems.

However, the government’s licensing process has been a complex and costly “train wreck” for farmers, Hamir said, noting approvals can take years to get while other applicants have jumped through hoops and still been denied authorizations.

“Licenses are no joke,” she said. “I also know larger farmers who submitted their licenses six years ago and are still waiting. How can anyone take this system seriously?”

Requests for interviews or comment from the NDP and BC United Comox-Courtenay riding candidates and the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship by Canada’s National Observer got no response before publication deadline.



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