Water meters could help British Columbia fruit growers better manage orchard irrigation, if a decade of experience in the South East Kelowna Irrigation District is any indication.

New water metering programs for Canadian agricultural users have been implemented for the Vernon Irrigation District; the three Kelowna-area irrigation districts of Black Mountain, Glenmore-Ellison and Westbank; and the Summerland Irrigation District. The aim is to establish a baseline for water demand that could, if the districts see fit, serve as a basis for charging for the use of water over and above a base allotment.

It"s a strategy that"s worked in the South East Kelowna Irrigation District, where a metering program for agricultural users was launched in 1995. Since the district began charging users based on water use in 2000, demand has been below the historical norm.

Growers in the Okanagan typically tap surface water–runoff from melting snow and rain –for irrigation water. In South East Kelowna, the irrigation district sets an annual allotment for how much water can be used. During normal supply years (such as the current year), the per-acre allotment is the same as the drought-year water requirement of the district–the minimum required in a dry year. The drought year requirement of the district is equal to 2.25 feet of water per acre of land, or 733,162 U.S. gallons per acre.

Drop in water use

With the introduction of a punitive fee schedule in 2003 that dings growers an increasing amount for every extra 10 percent of their allotment, the number of large users has dropped significantly.

"When you have an unregulated resource, everyone"s worried about what their neighbor"s doing," explained Toby Pike, general manager of the irrigation district. "What the meters have done is help us to regulate [irrigation water] so that there"s a feeling of fairness and equity throughout."

The result is a greater adaptiveness to yearly variations in supplies, Pike said, because there"s less incentive to take more than one"s share. Moreover, the research that went into achieving a baseline, which was reduced by 10 percent from the initial level set in the late 1990s, means that growers who manage water well should not be subject to extra charges.

But if metering is a tool that can help conserve surface water, Anna Warwick Sears, executive director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board, believes there should be a complementary system for monitoring groundwater. Her fear is that growers who don"t want to pay penalties could source groundwater and have a direct impact on the water table.

"If you have increased controls over surface water and there"s no controls over groundwater, then people could just switch right to groundwater and start overexploiting that resource," she said.

Groundwater

British Columbia–unlike Washington–has no regulations governing groundwater use.

"B.C. is sort of an anomaly," Sears said. "We"re the only state or province in North America that doesn"t have any regulations."

John Janmaat, an assistant professor of economics at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia, has his own concerns.

While better water management may benefit crop production, growers who reduce water usage may actually be putting their access to water at risk, Janmaat argues. The charters of irrigation districts require them to supply users so long as they have the capacity, and to serve domestic users prior to growers in the event of drought.

"If the farmers adopt water-saving technologies and use less water, that increases the capacity of the purveyor [irrigation district]," Janmaat said. "It ends up in the end possibly making [growers] more vulnerable to things like drought…. Once the water moves to domestic use, then if there is a shortage, the domestic use has to be supplied first."

While a metering system may help improve water management, Janmaat feels it"s probably better for growers to take steps to manage the risks associated with drought. He launched a drought-risk management study this spring that will examine how prepared Okanagan farmers are for a drought, and what could be done to minimize the impact of water shortages.

Getting to know more about the local water supply is something Summerland grower Lorraine Bennest believes can only help growers. A veteran of local water shortages and now a town councillor, Bennest thinks metering can improve growers" understanding of local water supplies and the connection to orchard demand.

Growing food

Moreover, the current attention to ensuring local food supplies in the face of rising food prices means metering is more likely to work in a grower"s favor than not. The point of metering is not to limit access, Bennest explained, it"s about ensuring supplies are there when they"re needed.

"It"s not about somebody coming and telling me they"re taking my water away," Bennest said. "They"ve figured out that I grow food!"

Agricultural water reserve?

The Agricultural Land Reserve meant to protect British Columbia"s farmland from disappearing remains contentious, 35 years after its inception.

Yet the concept of reserving endangered resources remains alive. An industrial land reserve is being pitched in the Vancouver area.

Could a reserve work for irrigation water?

"We have an Agricultural Land Reserve, but we don"t have an Agricultural Water Reserve that ensures that those agricultural lands have water for perpetuity," notes Anna Warwick Sears, executive director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board, which is charged with overseeing water management in the Okanagan basin.

Similarly, Ted van der Gulik, an engineer with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, notes that a lack of access to water will limit efforts to bring more land into production. A government report issued last year noted that approximately 40 percent of the fruit acreage required for self-sufficiency in British Columbia was irrigated.

"You have this land base that"s secured for agriculture, but it doesn"t have water allocated to it," van der Gulik said. "Agriculture is going to need more water down the road if we"re going to make use of these ALR lands."

But don"t count on an agricultural water reserve to match the land reserve.

"A formal reserve for water like the ALR?" said John Janmaat, assistant professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. "There"s so much controversy about the ALR that I"m not sure anybody would want to seriously enter that discussion." –P. Mitham