It’s a myth that Canada has masses of water, according to Oliver Brandes, associate director for the POLIS project on ecological governance at the University of Victoria.
There’s actually no surplus of water in Canada, he told a small group of people in Kelowna Tuesday evening, as part of a panel discussion organized by the Okanagan Basin Water Board to celebrate World Water Day.
And, as far as exporting water is concerned, he pointed out that in fact water is heavy and hard to move, so, on the whole, it’s far cheaper to conserve water than to move it from one place to another.
He suggested a water IQ should be a pre-condition to making change happen, so people would learn to have a basic understanding of such issues as where their water comes from.
The topic for panel members was Water in an Urbanized World: Water, Food, Land and People in the Okanagan, and panelists included UBCO anthropologist John Wagner, UBCO resource economist John Janmaat, Toby Pike, manager of the South East Kelowna Irrigation District, Domenic Rampone from a pioneer farming family and Anna Warwick Sears, executive-director of the OBWB.
Janmaat noted that the valley is changing, with half the farms and twice the people in the past 30 years. Traditionally, residents were intimately connected with their water, but that’s no longer the case.
He pointed out too, that most of the agricultural production is not basic food. Instead it’s agri-food with the experience of it being part of its cost and attraction.
There are lots of places in the world where there is better capacity to grow food, he added, and growing food here is not cheap.
Rampone noted food is why we exist and water is needed to grow food, so it’s important we preserve water so we can become self-sufficient. Water reserves tied to agricultural land are important.
“We don’t want to lose water for food production,” he said.
Wagner said agriculture is threatened as much by the cost of farmland as by water, so the average age of farmers is now ‘old,’ with young people not able to get into farming.
“We’ve retreated in our support for agriculture,” he said, but long-term we need to provide support for agriculture.
Instead of orchards, he would like to see local produce grown on valley farms.
“There should be farmland next to your favourite cappuccino bar,” he suggested.
Sears said research shows much of our water goes to keep lawns green and advised with less sprawl, more people could be accommodated here without affecting the needs of agriculture for water.
“We can have a balance; share the water,” she commented.
Pike agreed with her concern about conserving water, and said green lawns shouldn’t be a status symbol.
However, he said conservation of water helps, but aging infrastructure will require that more is charged for water in order to pay to replace it eventually. Economic instruments are not needed to stop water waste; regulations are needed, he said.
He said in his district farmers are leasing from the rich landowners, but now even those farmers are walking away from the leases because they can’t afford to continue losing money growing apples.
There is a need to ensure there’s water for all agricultural land whether it’s in production or not, he added.