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21st September 2023
Opinion: We need local solutions to tackle water scarcity and protect B.C.'s food security

As farmers suffer significant production losses, we have a responsibility to create a more resilient food system in B.C.

Author of the article:Jeremy Dunn and Kevin Boon
Published Sep 19, 2023

The recent climate-change-induced disasters in B.C. have been nothing short of apocalyptic for our dairy farmers, ranchers, and food growers.

While their stories of resilience and strength stand out in the face of adversity, there is an increasing realization that climate change in B.C. underscores the need for solutions rooted in the very communities it affects. By drawing on local expertise, fostering collaboration, and embracing innovative approaches, we can not only mitigate the effects of climate change but also build resilience for future challenges.

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The last three years brought us unrelenting heat, devastating wildfires, catastrophic floods and prolonged dry spells. The ongoing historic drought has now put immense pressure on our water systems, affecting everything from agriculture and fisheries to our urban water supply.

As of this week, most of B.C.’s water basins are at drought level 4 or 5, which means serious social, economic, and environmental impacts are virtually guaranteed, according to provincial government warnings.

While climate change is a global issue, it is felt on a local scale and our provincial food security relies on predictable water availability. Water scarcity now is hindering crop growth, affecting forage availability for livestock, and as a result, farmers are suffering significant production losses. This translates into less local food availability for British Columbians at a time when our communities need more access to locally grown food.

Every region in B.C. has its own set of challenges and complexities when dealing with drought conditions. Solutions tailored to these local complexities have a higher likelihood of success than generic, one-size-fits-all approaches. Local communities, by virtue of their intimate knowledge of their region, can often inform innovative solutions in collaboration with larger organizations and government bodies. These solutions can be fine-tuned as the situation evolves, ensuring that the measures taken are practical, sustainable, and have community buy-in.

As this year’s drought tightens its grip across BC, we have a responsibility to safeguard our provincial food supply. We can create a more resilient food system in B.C. by:

• Prioritizing water for food-producing agriculture at a level consistent with that of drinking water. Further, when developing community plans or considering development permits, local governments should be obligated to consider available water supply and ensure existing agricultural requirements can be sustained to maintain domestic food security, on a priority basis.

• Establishing Agricultural Water Reserves in conjunction with the Agricultural Land Reserve that would provide long-term, generational sustainability for agriculture, and the assurance that farming can continue in times of drought.

• Creating a specific Watershed Security Fund with permanent liaison positions to ensure effective collaboration in areas that have experienced, or are expected to experience, challenges with water scarcity.

• Leveraging the generational knowledge of farmers in land and water management, recognizing that farm families have a vested interest in the long-term sustainability and stewardship of agricultural land.

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• Ensuring that farmers are included at tables where decisions are made that may impact their ability to produce food for British Columbians, and directly involving farmers in spaces where solutions are developed.

• Integrating water storage infrastructure. Many areas that are experiencing water shortages in the summer months get a surplus of rain in the winter. Creating infrastructure to store water, whether at a watershed or individual farm level, could allow us to move away from restricting supply during shortages and reduce user-group conflict.

• Having a clear engagement process with First Nations to develop a transparent process for engaging with priority water user stakeholder groups, including food-producing agriculture.

Currently, our water management strategies seem to be stuck in the past, often relying on top-down decisions with little local input, outdated infrastructure and governance models. While broader, macro-level strategies are essential, it’s crucial to recognize and prioritize local, community-driven solutions.

By focusing on local solutions, B.C. can pave the way for sustainable water management and drought mitigation strategies that can serve as a model for other communities facing similar climate change challenges. Above all, it will help us build a thriving and resilient agriculture system that can continue to provide locally grown food for British Columbians.

Jeremy Dunn is general manager of the B.C. Dairy Association; Kevin Boon is general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association