Trying to avoid a fight over a valued resource

Water is not just essential to life; it has a social life as both a commodity and a symbol; and it’s been fought over for at least a century, both on its shorelines and in the courts.

These are just some of the water issues outlined on the second day of the One Watershed—One Water conference that wrapped up Thursday in Kelowna.

Put on by the Okanagan Basin Water Board and the Canadian Water Resources Association, organizers intend that it will mark a turning point in water management in the Okanagan Basin, and result in implementation of a sustainable water strategy for the valley.

The fight over water has not been as violent in the Okanagan as it has been in the Lake Tahoe watershed, which straddles Nevada and California and includes five counties and one city, yet only 55,000 year-round residents.

Larry Benoit, water quality program manager for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, told the 200 or so delegates the story of the watershed during more than 100 years of disputes that ranged from who got to use it and how much it could be drawn down, to what land uses can occur on its lakeshore and in its forested watershed, and who can decides all those issues.

As one of the deepest lakes in the U.S., and the largest alpine lake, it was eyed, early on, for irrigation of farmland downstream, as well as for domestic water use.

However, those living on its shores objected when the farmers tried to dig a canal around the dam, and the courts had to step in, related Benoit.

Over the years, a number of agreements have been signed, disputed, re-negotiated and re-signed, and another round is currently being negotiated.

Because of concerns about the lake’s famous water clarity, which has dropped in recent years, sewage is all trucked out of the watershed, and efforts are currently underway to restore the water clarity.

In 1972 the first regional plan for the area was adopted but lawsuits resulted and a no-development moratorium was instituted temporarily.

Urbanization has continued to have impacts, though, and at one point there was a cap put on casino floor area in the basin.

Today, Benoit said there is a soil regulation which limits the impervious cover on land and creates stream environmental zones as well as regulations to protect water and air quality, vegetation, wildlife and fisheries.

A new regional planning process called Pathway 2007 is currently at the public discussion stage and it’s hoped it will result in a clearer path to the future.

With his experience with Tahoe, Benoit advised Okanagan Basin residents that it might be necessary to regulate or control growth in this watershed.

He explained they have a cap on growth because of available water rights.

Residents also got a warning on the social side of the water question from John Wagner, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at UBCO.

“Water can draw together and it can divide,” he told delegates, adding, “It holds a powerful position in human systems.”

He noted that the valley’s early irrigation systems were built by land companies intent on selling real estate, because they realized the land had to have water before it would attract buyers. “None were local,” he said.

That changed with the first world war when farmer-run groups took over the water systems.

However, now he says orchards are giving way to vineyards and golf courses, and there’s a corporate takeover of the land in the valley.

He pointed to the holdings of multi-national Constellation Brands, which owns Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs, Sumac Ridge and Hawthorne Mountain wineries in the valley, and controls thousands of acres of vineyard.

“The future of the Okanagan may lay in their hands,” he warned.

He says he’s found that water today is a resort commodity valued for recreation, but he notes that irrigated oasis image also was featured in ads 100 years ago luring settlers to the valley.

It’s not a lush oasis without water, and it’s not nearly so attractive without that blue chain of lakes down its centre.

Now, he says proximity to water is equated with social status.

“Water management is tied up with what we want to become,” he said.

But, he warned: “corporate marketing could lead to more environmental degradation.

He concludes he is impressed with the multi-level, integrated water governance model which appears to be growing here in the valley.