B.C. Farmland Could Be Flooded for Site C Megadam if Changes to Agricultural Land Reserve Proceed

Proposed changes to B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) open the door to flooding the Peace Valley, which could feed a million people fruits and vegetables, according to an agricultural expert.

The Site C dam, if approved, would impact 13,000 hectares of agricultural land — including flooding 3,800 hectares of farmland in the ALR, an area nearly twice the size of the city of Victoria.

Bill 24 would split B.C.'s ALR into two zones. Zone 1 land would continue to be protected for food production, while Zone 2 land could be opened to non-agricultural uses, including oil and gas development.

On Monday, farmers from the Kootenays converged on the B.C. legislature, protesting the changes and saying they hadn’t been consulted. And on Tuesday, 13 soil experts wrote to Premier Christy Clark warning the bill will put at risk some of the province's best farmland.

With the changes, “the land reserve will be considered toothless,” says professional agrologist Wendy Holm, who has 40 years of experience in agriculture economics and public policy. “It opens the door for Site C.”

The Peace Valley falls into Zone 2, which includes the Interior, Kootenay and North regions — despite being capable of growing the same crops as the Fraser and Okanagan valleys (including melons, tomatoes and corn).

“There’s enough land to produce fresh fruits and vegetables for a million people,” Holm says of the Peace Valley. “There’s tremendous potential in the north.”

In a news release, the province said the changes would "provide farmers with more flexibility to support their farming operations" and "help farmers generate increased incomes and better support food production."

The ALR was created 40 years ago to preserve the province’s shrinking farmland in the face of rapid development pressures. Typically, to remove land from the reserve, approval is required from the province’s Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), which aims to conserve lands for food production.

But in December 2013, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett wrote a letter to BC Hydro and the ALC seeking to block the commission’s involvement in the Site C review:

“The province is aware that one of the issues at the [JRP] hearing will be the effect of the project on agricultural land, some of which is within the Agricultural Land Reserve. I am writing to inform you that the government’s current view is that this process should not be duplicated … under the Agricultural Land Commission Act.”

However, the joint review panel assessing the proposal decided to request an opinion from the Agricultural Land Commission anyway — just days before its hearings finished.

“It’s the only large tract of vegetable land that’s not in production we have in the province,” says Holm, who was contracted by the Peace Valley Environmental Association to assess the Site C dam’s impact on agriculture. “We have to bring more land into production to meet our own food security needs.”

B.C. imports 57 per cent of fruits and vegetables consumed in the province that could be grown in the province, according to Holm’s presentation to the review panel.

“It’s not about what’s economic today,” she says. “This is land that forms part of the commons. This is part of the natural capital of our country.”

Holm says food prices are only going up, further increasing the importance of protecting agricultural land. “I think we’re going to see dramatically increasing food prices due to the droughts happening,” she says.

Some of the arable land in the Peace Valley is not currently farmed because the area has been under threat of flooding since the late 1950s, Holm says.

“Without the shadow of the dam, what is happening today would be different,” she says.

The Peace River already hosts two hydro dams — the WAC Bennett Dam, which began operating in 1968 and created the Williston Reservoir, the largest body of freshwater in B.C., and the Peace Canyon dam, completed in 1980.

In the 1980s, the Site C dam was considered by the independent BC Utilities Commission and turned down because the electricity it would produce was too expensive and not needed. In the ’90s, BC Hydro decided to suspend the project again because the need for power was still insufficient. The project may have been turned down by the utilities commission again, but in 2010 the provincial government removed Site C from the commission’s oversight.

The joint review panel is expected to issue its recommendation on the Site C dam in late April.

Photo: Downstream of the proposed Site C dam. Credit: Tuchodi via Flickr.

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