Starting a Watershed

I recently had the opportunity to hear from a selection of experts about some important water issues in the Okanagan.  I think that the pie chart below, results from the Okanagan Basin Water Board’s Supply and Demand Project, captures the essence of the issue.

Water use in the Okanagan.

Average End-Use of Water in the Okanagan Basin – 1996 to 2006 (Source: Okanagan Basin Water Board Supply and Demand Project)

This pie chart shows how we are presently sharing water among different human uses. One use that is conspicuous in its absence is the environment. The environment gets what is left over. If we want more water for any one of these uses, we either have to make the pie bigger – take more water from the environment – or reduce the amount of water in other uses.

More than twenty years ago a trio of authors with both legal and hydrological expertise published a paper entitled “Western Water Rights: The Era of Reallocation (Shupe, Steven J. et al, 1989).” I have recently heard other speakers, including Canadian water expert Bob Sanford, asserting the same point. Namely, we are no longer in a world where we can just keep taking more water from the environment. In some cases, there just isn’t any more to take. In other cases, to do so will be very expensive and have significant environmental impacts. We now have to face the much harder challenge of shifting water between users. This challenge is hard because it means that providing more water for some uses means there is going to be less for other uses. How can we make these reallocations so that nobody is left worse off?

The challenge of reallocation raises some hard questions that we have been doing our best to avoid since before the 1974 Okanagan Basin Study.  Fundamentally, are we putting the water we are using to its best use?  Agriculture uses more than half of the water, yet has declined to become a relatively minor direct contributor to the Okanagan economy.  In 2011, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting combined accounted for about 7.2% of all businesses with employees in the Okanagan, and an even smaller percentage of all businesses (BC Stats 2012a, 2012b, 2012c).  The biggest engine for our economy is building houses for the new people we are attracting to the valley and then providing services to them when they get here.  When that inflow of new people and their money slows down, we panic and do whatever we can to get it going again.  So, should we pull water away from agriculture so that newcomers can have and use as much water as they want, which includes spraying three quarters of it on their yards?  Or is agriculture a vital part of what makes the Okanagan such an attractive place for people to come, so that cutting back the amount of water agriculture gets will itself slow this flow of new people and their money?

We are also demanding that our water be clean and safe.  However, we’ve become accustomed to not paying for it.  We are facing large bills to upgrade systems designed to deliver irrigation water.  We are also facing the fact that now there are more of us, we can’t all play in our watersheds and not significantly impact water quality.

Finally, our climate is changing.  That means when and how much water we can use is changing.  We are likely going to have to make some significant and costly changes to our water infrastructure, or economy, and the way we live our lives.  Do we have a moral duty to accept climate refugees from areas that can no longer sustain their population?  Must we protect agricultural land and the water it needs in case changing climates cause declining food production elsewhere?  Should we protect and restore natural habitats in the Okanagan, a vital corridor as species migrate northwards?

I am Dr. John Janmaat, an associate professor of economics and I currently hold the Leading Edge Endowment Fund chair in Water Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia.  The experts I recently heard from are a committee assembled from local experts and supporters to help me understand important water and sustainability issues here in the Okanagan and beyond.  I plan to periodically update this blog with my thoughts on things I learn about, most of which will relate to water and the Okanagan.  However, from time to time I may get carried away and talk about things like the Northern Gateway Pipeline and other issues in the news.  I also plan to invite contributions from my colleagues here at the Okanagan campus who work on water issues.

I’m also looking for feedback.  If you like what you read, please let me know.  If you don’t and/or you disagree, I really want to hear from you.  I am throwing out my thoughts, and I’m open to be convinced that my thoughts are wrong.

  • BC Stats (2012) “Central Okanagan Regional District.” Quarterly Regional Statistics, Second Quarter 2012.
  • BC Stats (2012) “North Okanagan Regional District.” Quarterly Regional Statistics, Second Quarter 2012.
  • BC Stats (2012) “Okanagan Similkameen Regional District.” Quarterly Regional Statistics, Second Quarter 2012.
  • Shupe, Steven J., Weatherford, Gary D., Checchio, Elizabeth (1989) “Western Water Rights: The Era of Reallocation.”  Natural Resources Journal 29:413-434