B.C. farmers seek compensation in treaty renewal

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There have been a lot of changes in agriculture in the Pacific Northwest since the Columbia River Treaty was implemented in 1964.

BC Farmers seek compensation
BC Farmers seek compensation from Columbia Treaty

The British Columbia government is now looking to continue and improve the treaty as it comes up for renewal in 2024, and B.C. tree fruit and vegetable growers are looking for a share of the benefits.

“We feel that the tree fruit industry and also the potatoes and vegetable industry should get some kind of compensation because we were impacted by this,” B.C. Fruit Growers Association president Fred Steele said in an interview.

Flood control and hydro power generation were the treaty’s two original goals.

Three dams were built between 1968 and 1973, which hold back up to 50 percent of the spring flood waters from the Columbia River.

B.C. gradually releases the water to provide a consistent flow, which allows U.S. hydro dams to generate power year round.

In return, B.C. received a $64 million initial payment, sold the first 30 years of power allotment for $254 million, which allowed the province to build the dams, and continues to collect an average of $214 million a year for its share of hydro sales.

“I don’t think when that treaty was signed that they ever took into consideration how it was going to impact B.C. farmers,” Bill Zylams, chair of the B.C. Vegetable and Potato Growers Association, said in an interview.

“No one realized that by giving them that water how great it was going to be for their agriculture.”

Indeed, Washington state gained a significant amount of high value irrigated cropland.

Lake Roosevelt sits behind the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia and provides water for both hydro power and irrigation.

The Columbia Basin Project pumps water from Lake Roosevelt up 100 metres to the dry bench lands that surround the river. As well, man-made Banks Lake and more than 3,200 kilometres of canals create 671,000 acres of irrigated farmland.

“The argument is not about the increase in irrigated acreage,” John Wagner of the University of B.C. Okanagan said at a recent Columbia River Treaty forum.

“The argument is about generating late summer irrigation capacity.”

Water volume varies from year to year in any river and fluctuates over the course of the year. Wagner said late summer levels in the Columbia could be as little as one-fifth of the average flows of the year without the consistent releases from B.C.

“Some years it may have been sufficient, but it only takes one year in four or five or even 10 (for a fruit tree or a grape vine to die) to make the land unsuitable,” said Wagner.

A secure and consistent supply of water from B.C. dams allowed Washington growers to shift to higher value crops.

Fruit trees, grapes, potatoes and onions could now prosper instead of the oats, barley and sugar beets that had been grown previously, Wagner said.

Apple plantings increased from 484 acres in 1962, before the B.C. dams were built, to 27,433 acres in 1992.

Apple crop value increased from $1.3 million to $150 million, asparagus went from 628 acres to nearly 36,000 acres and onions from 1,250 acres to 29,600 acres.

That has been tough competition for B.C. farmers, said Zylams.

“We lost our onion industry because of the cheap product coming from the States,” he said.

“Let’s say for argument that it costs us $10 to produce a 50 pound bag of onions. They can produce them for $4 or 5.”

Low-cost reliable water, fertile land, economies of scale and cheaper labour all contribute to the Washington advantage.

“You’ve got to give them credit,” said Zylams. “Their crops are very good.”

That advantage led B.C. potato growers to secure renewal of an anti-dumping order that has been in place against U.S. potatoes since 1984.

“U.S. growers cannot bring in potatoes under the market price of our potatoes,” said Zylams.

“They have to meet that price. The time has come that we need to work together on both sides of the border for the betterment of agriculture because of the water.”

Steele said Washington farmers want to keep the benefits they receive from the deal.

“They are now wanting to include access to irrigation water as part of the (CRT) discussions,” he said. “They want security due to climate change and drought conditions.”

Wagner said the treaty should recognize the agricultural water use issue.

“It’s too big a player to be left out of the treaty.”

Steele agreed, “but somewhere it should be negotiated that B.C. farmers get something for it.”

Zylams said the dry conditions in B.C. this summer were a wake-up call.

“We are lacking infrastructure for agriculture in this province, so if we could get money from the Americans to build infrastructure for more water, that would be the biggest win.”


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