Rancher calls water order attack on agriculture

A rancher forced to shut down irrigation pumps on the Nicola River to conserve fish called the order an assault on agriculture that trumps a water licence in existence for more than a century.

Mike Rose estimated orders from Victoria and Ottawa to cease irrigation will cost the family-owned Quilchena Ranch $150,000. It will now have to purchase feed on the open market to tide over the herd for the fall and winter season once they are off range grass.

"We're just trying to grow our third crop (of alfalfa) which is what we feed cows between now and Christmas," said Mike Rose, part of the family that owns the historic ranch.

The order comes during a continued economic depression in the industry. The ranch's water licence is more than 130 years old.

Rose said his operation was the only one affected by a Ministry of Environment clampdown on water use. The order comes as an attempt to save spawning kokanee salmon by increasing levels in the Nicola River upstream of Nicola Lake.

Valerie Cameron, a regional manager with the Ministry of Environment, said the run of kokanee is in critical shape. The run, which returns on three-year cycles, was decimated by the 2003 drought that produced Firestorm 2003.

"This (2003) was a year of one of the worst droughts. Fish have really reacted negatively to low flows."

Rose said information on a provincial and federal water flow website shows the level has been lower in more than a dozen years. He walked the stream this morning and didn't see any spawning or dead kokanee salmon, which he believes may show up later when irrigation season is over.

The ranch has made strides to conserve water, including undertaking a federally sponsored environmental farm plan that saw hundreds of irrigation nozzles replaced with smaller units.

"By doing that we got down to 65 per cent of our legal allotment. We stuck our necks out, cut our use and thought we'd be OK."

B.C. Cattlemen's Association spokeswoman Elaine Stovin said the move comes as a shock to those with historical water rights placing them as the No. 1 user.

"They're not used to having those rights temporarily suspended. Because water rights are so important it will be a big concern for our members."

The province recently adopted new legislation allowing orders to be given to save fish habitat. Environment Minister Barry Penner said the situation is a crisis because flows were below .35 metres per second.

Even with the order and voluntary release of upstream water by Douglas Lake and Upper Nicola band, Cameron levels are still below what is considered necessary for the fish to thrive.

Rose is also angry that it is his water storage dams on the plateau that cause water to flow at this time of year. The irrigation dams hold back water from spring freshet.

"If no one created the storage the creek would be dry every year. Agriculture has created the storage upstream. Now we can't use it."

The order represents the first time in B.C. new regulations have been enacted but it is unlikely to be the last. The stream is considered at a five- or 10-year low this season, suggesting orders may become a regular occurance.

Cameron said officials are also looking at flows in the Nicola River below the City of Merritt, an important stream for salmon.

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