Drought Management Planning in the Okanagan

B.C.’s water purveyors are finding it increasingly difficult to supply the water needs of a growing population. When the effects of climate change, global warming, and an increase in the frequency and severity of drought occurrences are added, the situation becomes even more difficult. Water supply must be maintained even during times of drought. Developing new sources of water is often prohibitively expensive or is simply not possible. Therefore, to withstand the effects of drought, efforts must be made to conserve water resources that are currently being utilized.

Drought management planning is becoming more essential, yet a recent survey conducted by the B.C. Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection and the BCWWA’s Water Sustainability Committee, showed that only 17 percent of those surveyed indicated their community had a plan in place. Almost 28 percent were considering drought management planning, but that still leaves a large number of communities that either have no plan or are not considering implementing one.

The South East Kelowna Irrigation District (SEKID) is one of the utilities that have a drought management plan in place. Long, hot and dry summers are taking their toll on the precious water resources. Without effective water management plans in place, the district would be hard pressed to supply the needs of its customers during times of recurring droughts.

SEKID serves an area that is mostly rural and agricultural. Since approximately 85 percent of the water supplied by the District each year is used in crop irrigation, SEKID targeted the agricultural sector as the best place to promote water-use efficiency. The District’s decision to install water meters in all its irrigation connections was initially controversial, however it would later prove to be a highly effective conservation tool.

With the meters installed, SEKID (in partnership with B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Agriculture Canada) proceeded to study agricultural water use for a period of six years. During that time, growers were educated about water-use efficiency. They were supplied with instruments to measure soil moisture and were encouraged to utilize efficient irrigation techniques. This encouraged growers to irrigate only when necessary and when the maximum benefits could be obtained. A pilot project was also set up to determined how much water crops actually needed. Monthly water-use reports kept growers informed as to their water consumption, and newsletters and other public information provided additional education.

When the study was completed, water allotments for all customers were set. These amounts were based on the estimated drought year requirements and were individually determined for each user. The intent of this approach was to provide enough water for agricultural use while eliminating water waste. Water use was closely monitored, and if anyone used more than his or her allotment, fines and penalties were imposed. The district retained the right to shut off water service completely if a grower used more than what was allotted. Shut-offs did occur in some cases.

Despite good communication and education programs in the initial stages of the project, there were people who still refused to comply with water conservation initiatives. This was a challenge faced by the District. Water meters provided a means to encourage the required compliance by enabling the implementation of a metered rate penalty for excess water use.

Communities considering implementing drought management programs should take note of the recommendations made by SEKID. Water meters are an important component of its management plan. SEKID believes that “metering is an effective tool in agricultural water conservation,” and “applying water allotments effectively regulates water use and prevents water waste and abuse.”

Public education programs are important and encourage many people to conserve water, however education alone is not sufficient to ensure universal compliance with water conservation initiatives. SEKID concluded that an “allotment system appears more effective than education alone in water conservation.” Drought management plans which incorporate effective education about water-use efficiency, realistic water pricing rates utilizing water meters, and penalties for excess water users, all help to achieve the sustainability of our water resources.