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4th October 2023
Ministers talk 'scaling up' community water boards in light of Westwold drought conflict

Kristen Holliday - Sep 26, 2023 / 4:00 am

A pair of B.C. ministers said they want to see more partnerships between the province and communities to plan for drought response after tensions escalated over water use restrictions in Westwold this summer.

In mid-August, a fish protection order was placed on the Salmon River due to extreme drought. Emotions ran high as forage crop farmers were ordered to stop using water for agricultural purposes.

During a panel discussion on emergency preparedness at last week’s Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, Bruce Ralston, minister of forests, said he would like to see the province and communities work together as difficult decisions over water use will need to be made in the future.

“I think what's coming in the emerging era of drought across the province is more and more decisions that are very difficult to make — and have big consequences for agricultural producers, or businesses or individuals — will have to be made,” Ralston said.

“That's why we have to work together, hammer out our policy, work at the community level.”

He said in B.C. regions like the Cowichan, the Koksilah and parts of the Nicola Valley, community water boards meet and make those types of decisions collectively.

“That is more the way that I would like to see these matters proceeding, but I was faced with a very tough decision and as far as I'm concerned, I made the right decision.”

Ralston discussed the Westwold water conflict after Doug Haughton, Thompson-Nicola Regional District for Electoral Area L, stood in front of a packed conference room and asked ministers to improve dialogue with locals over water restrictions.

Haughton said most Westwold farmers were complying with a voluntary water use restriction which preceded the order, adding “ugly” confrontations over water could have been avoided if the province had initiated better communication with Westwold forage crop farmers before the order was enacted.

“I'll do anything in the TNRD to help you folks. I think most, if not all other regional district directors would too. So I’m just asking for better things next time,” Haughton said.

Ralston said the fish protection order was enacted based on monitoring data and advice from resource officers indicating once water flow falls below critical levels, this year’s salmon run could be wiped out.

The minister said there was an effort over a series of months to prepare residents for the possibility of the order.

“The legislation obliges a consideration of the agricultural industry. It's written right in the statute, and that was part of the consideration that was made,” Ralston said.

“I accept your point that communication, I think, usually can always be better. But I think there was a fairly good run-up to the possibility that that might take place.”

Nathan Cullen, Minister of Land, Water and Resource stewardship, said there are good models established throughout the province where communities, with the assistance of the B.C. government, have been able to have those difficult conversations ahead of drought.

“We have models across the province where you don't see those conflict points, because they have those tables set up and we can share information and talk to our neighbours,” Cullen said.

“We, as a province, I think need to scale that up. We need this happening in multiple places and identify the hotspots, so to speak, around the province where that can be stood up faster. So that's our commitment.”