Water Balance Management in the Okanagan: Now What Do We Do?


Towards Sustainable Water Management in the Okanagan

In February 2005, the  Canadian Water Resources Association organized a 3-day transformational conference titled “Water-Our Limiting Resource” – Towards Sustainable Water Management in the Okanagan. Held in Kelowna, the conference provided the Water Sustainability Action Plan with a platform for launching the “Convening for Action in British Columbia” intiative. Two companion WSC presentations laid out the vision in “convening for action”:

Read together, these two papers articulate the philosophy that underpins and is guiding the Convening for Action initiative. Summarized below are the highlights of the paper co-authored by Stephens, Erik Karlsen, Ted van der Gulik and Ron Smith. All are members of the Water Sustainability Committee of the BC Water & Waste Association.


The paper focuses on the Okanagan Basin as a ‘water balance area’. Two success stories are presented to elaborate on what can be accomplished by promoting the water balance theme as a way of integrating water management with landscape development:

  • Demand Management of Irrigation District Water Supplies in the Okanagan Valley– Initiated in 1988 and completed in 1990, this initiative was comprehensive in assessing the potential for domestic and irrigation water conservation. It was also the trigger for a change in philosophy that resulted in implementation of new approaches and tools.
  • Water Balance Model for British Columbia – This decision support and scenario modelling tool is changing the way people think about the relationship between the built and natural environments, and the way we develop the urban landscape.

“In the Okanagan, approximately 70 percent of water use is for agricultural purposes. Given the sheer magnitude of the agricultural component of the ‘Okanagan Water Balance’, one of the purposes of our paper is to provide an historical bridge from the 1988 initiative to the present that addresses these three questions,” states Ted van der Gulik. These questions are:

  1. What is our starting point?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How will we get there?

“The paper suggests expanding the application of the Water Balance Model approach to all land uses in the Okanagan, and in particular agriculture. In the urban environment, the main focus is on the individual development site because what we do at the site scale can create opportunities for cumulative benefits over time,” explains Kim Stephens. He is Program Coordinator for the Water Sustainability Action Plan for British Columbia.

“In applying the water balance philosophy to the Okanagan in its entirety, the proposed paradigm would be: ‘the Basin is the site’.   This would consider rainfall and infiltration as well as water used for growing and processing various agricultural products in relation to water sources.  Ultimately it would both pose and suggest answers to the question: How much of the basin’s water needs will have to be found through improved practices to ensure  the ongoing vitality of its  communities?”, adds Ron Smith.

To download a copy of the Abstract, click on Water Balance Management in the Okanagan: Now What Do We Do?

The 1990 report examined the combination of universal meterng plus irrigation system changes. Most of the potential saving is in the agricultural sector.

NOW WHAT: How We Will Get from Here to There

The paper also introduced the What, So What, Now What mindmap for moving from talk to action. This is explained below.

“The goal is three-pronged in providing security – for the Okanagan situation, this means a sustainable supply of water; certainty regarding how security will be provided (e.g. water rights, demand management strategies, etc.) and a focus on overall well-being (e.g. livability and protection of the natural landscape),” explains Erik Karlsen. “The application of this process is intended to address needs at the challenge level, before they escalate to problems, issues and crises (or even chaos).”


The process starts at the lower left hand corner of the larger aggregate triangle and proceeds to its apex and then down the right side and along the bottom.  It addresses three questions and then uses the answers to these to establish and engage in an adaptive management approach which in turn will generate ongoing knowledge to address changing needs.

  1. What are the conditions that create the need for change?  This involves generating and transferring knowledge that systematically addresses causal links.
  2. So what are the options and what is the best choice?  This involves looking for practical opportunities and overcoming barriers.
  3. Now what are the strategies and actions that will provide the security, certainty and well-being needed for sustainable outcomes?  This involves defining outcomes and making commitments to achieve these.

Adaptive Management

The final step involves monitoring performance of the action plans.  The actions taken will lead to new conditions.  Other influences will have changed conditions too.  These changes – and knowledge about them – may result in the need to revisit the three overarching questions and go through the process again.

Turning Points

A further point about the choice of a triangular diagram to illustrate this process, rather than a circular or Venn diagram:  making choices to go through this whole process requires turning points.   At each corner a commitment must be made to proceed to the next step.

To view the PowerPoint presentation titled “Water Balance Management in the Okanagan: Now What Do We Do?”, click here.