BC-Drought-Kopecky-Parkinson-illo

Canada’s wettest province faces historic drought — and a precarious new future

From grasshopper infestations to water restrictions, B.C.’s drought is affecting all corners of the province in ways surprising and predictable. Is the government doing enough to lead?

Near the end of July, I found myself discussing grasshoppers with an organic farmer named Thomas Tumbach.

I’d asked how his six-hectare Okanagan farm was faring amidst what’s shaping up to be the worst drought in B.C.’s history, expecting an answer that had something to do with water shortage. But Tumbach told me the drought wasn’t hitting his crop so directly; like most farms in the Okanagan, his irrigation water comes from a highland lake that isn’t in any immediate danger of running dry.  

It’s the knock-on effects that are killing him, he explained. One in particular: as the surrounding landscape desiccates, irrigated farms become oases that draw pests desperate for moisture. This year an unprecedented grasshopper infestation has laid waste to Tumbach’s vegetable harvest. He estimates the bugs will cost him more than $50,000 this year, a crippling blow for any small farmer.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. Nor is his an isolated case: grasshoppers are devouring crops from the Similkameen Valley in southwest B.C. all the way to Alberta.

And they’re just one of many drought impacts being overshadowed by this summer’s wildfires — an understandable distraction. Tumbach’s own home has been repeatedly threatened by wildfire in recent years, so he knows as well as anyone that when flames are bearing down, nothing else matters.

But water is life. In the long run its absence is even more lethal and far-reaching than fire, which is but one of drought’s many consequences. Others are playing out in every corner of the province right now, in ways both surprising and predictable. They range from insect plagues and parched crops to dead salmon, mental health issues, infrastructure crises and an overstretched public service.

So what’s to be done? Can the B.C. NDP do it? The provincial government has passed a number of policies that could help communities and ecosystems struggling to adapt to hotter, drier summers. Unfortunately, it seems afraid to use them.  

A person's shadow is projected on the bank of an irrigation ditch in B.C.
The 2023 B.C. drought is affecting nearly every region in the province, with two thirds of water basins at drought level 4 or 5. Critics say the government needs to act swifter to enforce restrictions before things get to those dire stages. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Two canaries on the coast

“As a society, we have to get over the idea that we have a limitless water supply,” said Donna McMahon, director of the Sunshine Coast Regional District for Elphinstone, a district studded with small farms. 

Since 2015, the Sunshine Coast has imposed Stage 4 water restrictions five times. Farmers have been prohibited from watering crops for periods ranging from two weeks in 2018 to three months in 2022. 

Most years, drought has been confined to small pockets of B.C. That, combined with the Sunshine Coast’s relative isolation, has made the region’s water scarcity seem unique. But this year, two thirds of B.C.’s water basins were at drought level 4 or 5 — the most extreme rating — by the end of July and water restrictions are coming into place in almost every corner of the province. The Sunshine Coast is no longer exceptional. “We may have been a bit of a canary in the coal mine, but our situation is far from unique,” McMahon said.

Part of that “situation” involves the bureaucratic obstacles to getting new water infrastructure in place. Silas White, mayor of Gibsons, the southernmost town on the Sunshine Coast, articulated the problem in an open letter to Premier David Eby published on May 31.

Crucial water-supply and storage projects are “mired in administrative and operational delays,” White wrote, adding that the impact went well beyond infrastructure. “My primary reason for writing you is to share with you this significant mental health and social phenomenon that has become absolutely real in our community, because it does not show up in our water licence applications or technical reports.”

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These are issues that communities all over the province, especially rural ones, are now grappling with. 

Another isolated community whose water crisis is veering from exceptional to emblematic happens to be among the rainiest places on earth: Tofino, B.C. 

By July 20, the town had received just 20 mm of rain in three months, about one fifteenth of the 275 mm it historically gets over that period. 

Although voluntary water restrictions were in place, Mayor Dan Law was hopeful his community could “race the drought to the end and we won’t have to take those drastic stage 4 measures.”

Tofino gets all its water from nearby Meares Island – the same island MacMillan Bloedel planned to clearcut in the early 1980s, only to be repelled by Tla’o’qui’aht and Ahousaht nations and the small army of activists they inspired. Four decades later, the reservoir supplying Tofino’s residents and the one million tourists that pass through each year, mostly in summer, is being replenished almost solely by moss, which absorbs moisture from fog and dew and drips it back into the ground. That moss, in turn, requires the shade and protection of primary forest to flourish. 

A boat glides within the Tofino harbour looking out to Meares Isalnd
With Meares Island the lone source of Tofino’s drinking water, the town is exploring options for expanding its supply to guard against future B.C. droughts. Photo: Melissa Renwick / The Narwhal

“So because of the vision and action of Tla’o’qui’aht First Nation, specifically Chief Moses Martin, in the 1980s, we have a healthy watershed,” Law said. “I think that’s extremely important for all of us to realize: the action that we take today, the wisdom of it may only become apparent in 40 years, and likely the inaction may become apparent too. ”

Highlighting the link between healthy ecosystems and water security isn’t the only lesson Tofino offers. As the town weighs its own options for expanding its water supply and enhancing conservation, memories of 2006 are top of mind. That year, drought forced the community to close all businesses, including resorts, turning visitors away and crippling the local economy as it came to the brink of running out of tap water. 

That experience galvanized the community to increase its reservoir and impose water metering on several big resorts. Thanks to those actions, 2023 has yet to reach the dire circumstances of 2006, despite this year being drier, Law explained. 

Are B.C. authorities leading, or reacting?

In 2016, B.C. passed the Water Sustainability Act, which gave the province wide-ranging powers to monitor water levels and enforce conservation measures. In 2021, the province launched a $27 million Healthy Watersheds Initiative that continues to evolve and expand, most recently with a $100 million endowment from the province in March 2023. The Watershed Security Fund, as it’s now called, will go toward habitat restoration, improving water-supply infrastructure and mapping watersheds across the province; an intentions paper in collaboration with First Nations is still in the works.

The problem, Oliver Brandes said, is that after giving itself those powers, the province has largely failed to exploit them. “We’ve got all these wonderful tools,” Brandes, project lead of the University of Victoria’s POLIS Water Sustainability Project, said. “Use them.” 

“The province has an unbelievably important role in providing confidence and management in drought. And that is the concern here,” Brandes said. He feels that provincial officials have — yet again — been caught flat-footed by a predictable emergency: B.C. didn’t issue its first official warning of impending drought until June 23 and that warning came with a request for voluntary water conservation rather than a mandate. “We knew it was coming in May and June, so where are the orders? Where are the fish protection orders, the critical flow orders? Where are the enforcement actions on unregulated groundwater users? Are we enforcing the rules?”

One crucial gap between water-policy intent and execution in B.C. is the province’s failure to register thousands of unlicensed, non-domestic water users, a category that encompasses water-bottlers, farmers, tourism operators and small industries. “If you’re going to manage the system, you’ve got to know who’s using the water and how much they’re taking,” Brandes said. 

Instead, provincial authorities are largely flying blind. Under the Water Sustainability Act, the province set a March 2022 deadline for an estimated 20,000 such non-domestic users to license their water use; only 7,900 applied. The result has been a haphazard enforcement of water restrictions, with a handful of unlicensed water users being cut off while thousands more have yet to suffer any consequence, and licensed users now find themselves subject to restrictions.

The Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship and the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness both declined an interview request. They sent a joint emailed response instead that read, in part, “We are calling on everyone in B.C. — including industrial water users – to reduce their water usage … the province is actively monitoring conditions, and will not hesitate to establish Temporary Protection Orders to restrict water usage by water licence holders if voluntary compliance does not result in the necessary reductions.” The email cited the water policies the province has passed, including the sustainability act. 

Brandes allowed that the province’s new policies and legal tools articulated “exactly the right commitment” but enforcement and application should have begun years ago. “Look at how many droughts there have been since 2016. We passed the legislation knowing full well this world was coming … There’s no excuse to say, ‘oh, I didn’t see a drought coming in 2023,’ ” Brandes said.

A farm near Smithers, B.C.
In northwest B.C.’s Bulkley-Nechako region, the severe drought conditions and wildfires have left farmers struggling. Photo: Matt Simmons / The Narwhal

Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, has tried to get the NDP government to be more aggressive with water management. “The unlicensed users should be their highest priority and they should be putting the full weight of the law behind enforcing that regulation, and they’re not,” he said.

“We brought this to their attention last year.”

But the society’s attempts to engage the B.C. government sound like a scene from Catch-22, with the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship directing Hill to the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, who pointed him to the Ministry of Forests and so on. “It was a clown show,” he said. 

I asked both Brandes and Hill if there wasn’t a chance that B.C.’s public service was simply overextended; this year’s drought, after all, is but the latest in a series of unprecedented catastrophes that go well beyond climate disasters. Both felt I was being too soft. “I don’t believe it’s just a staff problem,” said Brandes. “It’s really a priorities problem.”

But Donna McMahon, the Sunshine Coast Regional District director, felt otherwise. “Everybody’s overwhelmed,” she agreed when I put the same question to her. “The civil service that supports the Water Sustainability Act – when they put that Act through, they did not adequately resource it. And those people are overwhelmed, and they’re absolutely years behind in trying to process things like water licences.”

Tofino’s mayor, Dan Law, also had a far more sympathetic view of the NDP’s leadership. “The province has been excellent,” he told me, describing a productive relationship with numerous ministries which were all attentive to his feedback. Law is keenly aware this summer’s B.C. drought is no one-off, but rather a sign of things to come. Did he honestly feel that B.C.’s NDP saw things the same way?

“Absolutely,” he said. “This is really the start of hopefully a new relationship, where the province starts to look at everything in light of a changing climate … The costs are enormous to the province and they’re very well aware of that.”

Law’s confidence seems optimistic: the province has had years to factor the costs of climate change into its water policy. But bureaucracies move slowly, and this isn’t John Horgan’s NDP anymore. As a new generation of leaders assume key cabinet positions under Eby, they now have a chance to start using the policy tools at their disposal and proactively preparing this province for a hotter, drier future.

Properly speaking, it isn’t just a chance: it’s an imperative.

Updated on Aug. 18, 2023, at 1:58 p.m. PT: This story has been updated to clarify that the March 2022 deadline set by B.C. authorities was for non-domestic users to licence their water use, not register their wells.

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