BC’s PATH TO FOOD SECURITY IS THRU WATER SECURITY: “When we think of all the changes in thinking that we have gone through in the last 50 years, the Land Commission Act really is a testament to the incredible foresight demonstrated in 1973,” stated Joan Sawicki, former MLA

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The edition published on April 18, 2023 celebrated the 50th anniversary of British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve. The ALR is a testament to the incredible foresight demonstrated in 1973. The ALR saved the land and kept the options open for future generations. Without the ALR, there would be no prospect for food security. With the ALR, food security is achievable but only if BC also secures the water supplies needed to irrigate the land that would then provide food security.



BC’s path to food security is thru water security 

April 18th 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Land Commission Act in 1973 and subsequent creation of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) boundaries.

Most British Columbians do not know a British Columbia without the ALR. We take it for granted and that could be a problem because threats to food security do remain. In addition, we have new challenges such as climate change and water supply sustainability that were not even on the radar screen 50 years ago.

So, what was the rationale and justification for this unprecedented intrusion into rural land use planning? And why is the ALR a testament to the foresight of 1973?

For answers to those questions, we turn to Joan Sawicki, an original employee of the Land Commission, a career land use consultant, and a former provincial cabinet minister.

Keeping the Options Open

“With only about 5% of BC’s land area capable of agricultural use, 50 years ago it was estimated we were losing 6000 hectares per year to non-farm uses. It was clear that local governments could not withstand development pressures upon this scarce provincial resource,” recalls Joan Sawicki.

“With high reliance upon imported food from places like California and Mexico – and the increasing risks related to those sources – BC needed to safeguard its food security by ensuring our limited amount of agricultural land was available for present and future generations.”

“At a time when most other jurisdictions continue to lose their food lands, BC’s ALR remains the most successful agricultural land preservation program in North America. With food security now becoming a top-of-mind public issue, thanks to the foresight demonstrated in 1973 we still have “the land” – and I submit we would not still have the option for viable agricultural sectors in high growth areas like the Lower Mainland or the Okanagan without the ALR.”

“The ALR has been doing exactly what it was designed to do. It is protecting the lands that can grow food and keeping our options open. That was the title of the first Land Commission brochure, Keeping the Options Open. Thanks to the ALR, we still have land use options moving forward.”

SOURCE: presentation by Commission Chair Jennifer Dyson and CEO Kim Grout



“The guest Editor’s Perspective for this edition of Waterbucket eNews is contributed by Ted van der Gulik, Partnership President. Two decades ago, he had a vision for a science-based approach to management of irrigation water demand in BC. As the Senior Engineer in the BC Ministry of Agriculture, he had a mandate that allowed him to put his ideas into practice with province-wide implementation of the Agriculture Water Demand Model. He continues to provide guidance, training, and oversight for program delivery,” states Kim Stephens, Partnership Executive Director and Waterbucket eNews Editor.



BC’s path to food security is through water security

Look back to see ahead. The 50th anniversary of the ALR is an opportunity for reflection followed by action. As Joan Sawicki accurately concludes in her story behind the story, this will require equally good policy and political courage.

The ALR saved the land. Without the ALR, there would be no prospect for food security. Will today’s decision makers rise to the moment and secure the water supply necessary to irrigate the land needed for food security?

In terms of risks and opportunities, the situation in the Fraser Basin illustrates what is at stake for British Columbians.

A Changing Climate Threatens Food Security

Home to two-thirds of British Columbians, the mighty Fraser River is the lifeblood of a vast watershed that stretches from the Rockies to the Pacific. The lower Fraser Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in Canada, is vital to BC’s long-term food security.

The Fraser drains one of the most diverse watersheds in North America – for example, its vast lands contain ten of BC’s fourteen biogeoclimatic zones.  Yet many of the Fraser’s 34 tributaries, or riversheds, have been damaged by human activity.

Meanwhile, climate change is no longer a future scenario

It is here. At the mouth of the Fraser, for example, the consequences of summer droughts and rising sea levels combine to impact river water quality while at the same time increasing the need for irrigation water.

The critical issue, or impact, is the salt wedge and the shrinking window of opportunity for pumping fresh water from the Fraser River. This is a double whammy for agriculture.

An increase in sea levels combined with a drought flow on the Fraser River would allow ocean salt water to move farther upriver in the future.  This would shut down current water supply intakes for a longer period of time. Thus, it could become challenging to extract sufficient good quality irrigation water for agricultural use in Richmond and Delta.

What does this mean, really?

Gee-whiz facts!

Simply put, the water supply window for Richmond and Delta could be reduced from between 15 and 24 hours per day for present-day normal river flows, to less than 3 hours per day in the foreseeable future – due to the combination of sea level rise and drought flows.
What else do decision makers need to know?

Facts and figures help paint a picture

The Agriculture Water Demand Model is a foundation piece for food security. The model utilizes detailed land use inventories and incorporates a 500 m gridded climate data set – the only one in North America. The Agriculture Water Demand Model quantifies what we have versus what we need with respect to land and water:

Fact – BC’s farmers currently produce less than 50 percent of our provincial food requirements.

Fact – The ALR is over 4 million hectares.

Fact – To achieve food security in the Year 2025, for example, BC would require ~2.8 million ha of agricultural land in production of which over 300,000 ha must be irrigated.

Fact – This means that a 50 percent increase in irrigated farmland would be required – from 200,000 to 300,000 hectares.

Fact – Increased production would be concentrated on lands with access to irrigation – typically close to urban centers.

Fact – The amount of irrigated agricultural area in the Fraser Valley is already substantial and is about 1.4 times that in the Okanagan. Few people know this.

Fact – Also, the potential buildout for irrigated farmland in the Fraser Valley is about 2.4 times the area currently irrigated.

Fact – This means that the Fraser Valley alone could provide two-thirds of the additional irrigated land area that British Columbia needs for food security. Think about that!

Fact – The Fraser River would be able to supply much of the water required. But delivering the water would require a huge investment in infrastructure.

Fact – The Fraser Basin has more than 50% of the total provincial ALR area. And the ALR accounts for close to 10% of the basin drainage area.

Given the facts, what will today’s decision makers do? Fifty years from now, will future generations be praising the foresight demonstrated in 2023?



STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Fifty Years – and miraculously still here: BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve – conversational interview with Joan Sawicki 

“In August 1973, I walked into the Land Commission office in Burnaby for my first day of work, four months after the April 18 passage of the Land Commission Act,” recalls Joan Sawicki.

“A 5-member Commission had already been appointed and my soon-to-be husband, Gary Runka, a soil scientist with the BC Department of Agriculture in Kelowna, had already been seconded to serve as General Manager.”



“Our task was clear. We were to establish Agricultural Land Reserve boundaries across the province based on agriculture land capability mapping already completed under the national Canada Land Inventory (CLI) program.

“Fifty years later, I ask myself what made the ALR different and why did it last? And beyond its fundamental purpose to protect farmland, has it had a broader impact in BC?”

What makes the ALR different?

“The Land Commission Act came in the middle of the 1960s debate about land as a commodity that you buy and sell for the ‘highest and best use’ versus land as a resource to be managed in the greater public interest.”

“The legislation made it clear that BC’s scarce amount of farmland was not just a private commodity of the landowner, it was also an important provincial resource. And that provincial resource needed to be protected within a provincial zone.”

“Furthermore, that protected zone would be defined on a biophysical basis – the soil/climate capability of the land to grow food. Within the ALR, food production and compatible uses would be considered ‘the highest and best use’. Full stop. In my opinion, that is what makes the ALR different and is one of the main reasons why I believe it has lasted for 50 years.”

Fast forward to the present day

“While sometimes it may not feel like it, our thinking has actually changed quite a lot over the past 50 years. In the 1970s and 1980s, land as a resource continued to gain prominence – but resources were still seen in human terms. i.e., we use pieces and parts of the natural system to meet human needs. If we want or need it, then we see it as a ‘resource’.”

“In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, there was a growing recognition that there are some ecosystems that should be valued in their own right, quite apart from humans. This was the era when BC dramatically increased parks and protected areas.”

“Then we get to today. All of a sudden, (but not without warning), the realities of climate change are upon us. And we need to change our thinking yet again to recognize that, not only do ecosystems have a value unto themselves, but we also actually NEED healthy functioning ecosystems for human survival.”

“That brings us back to whole foundation of the ALR – that we need to ensure the availability and health of productive lands in order to feed ourselves, now and in the future.”

Where do we need to go next?

“How many British Columbians have even considered that the ALR has probably been the single greatest influence on community planning in BC over the past half century? “

“There were several government initiatives implemented in parallel with the ALR in the 1970s through 1990s that were about good community planning. A prime example was the Georgia Basin Initiative. The ALR was the catalyst. We had the ALR, but we still had to accommodate other uses, like residential, industrial and transportation corridors. The ALR meant we had to plan our settled areas better.“

“During the early 2000s, however, there was an  emphasis on smaller government and reduced budgets. The loss of planning capacity within local and regional governments has had consequences for community planning, especially in the rural areas of the province.”



Importance of keeping our options open

There are new issues that were not even on the radar screen in 1973, like climate change, biodiversity and Indigenous Reconciliation. All are complex and all demand a much broader understanding of agricultural use and ecological sustainability.”

“We don’t know what will face us in the future. But surely, the message of the last 50 years and the ALR is that we need to hedge our bets and keep our options open for the next 50 years too.” “

“In 1973, the Agricultural Land Reserve not only preserved the land for food production for present and future generations, but it preserved the option, our one last chance, to plan our settled communities to be more resilient and sustainable, to provide adequate housing, commercial, industrial and all the other land uses that people need.”

“When we think of the changes in thinking that have occurred over the past 50 years, the ALR really is a testament to the incredible foresight that was demonstrated in 1973. With all the challenges we now face, it will require equally good public policy, political courage – and foresight – to guide BC through the coming decades,” concludes Joan Sawicki.


Did you enjoy this article? Would you like a PDF document version? Click on the image below to download your copy.

BONUS! As an appendix, the downloadable document includes a copy of the article that Joan Sawicki wrote for Orders of the Day, the newsletter of the Association of Former MLAs of British Columbia. This is an enlightening narrative of defining moments in the 50-year history of BC’s ALR.

DOWNLOAD A COPY:  https://waterbucket.ca/wcp/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2023/04/PWSBC_Living-Water-Smart_ALR-50th-anniversary_2023.pdf


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