A Rancher Weights In On The Water Debate

Just as I was thinking we were done with the water topic and I was coming to terms with our ranch being completely unable to irrigate or restricted for the month of August and the effect that had on our hay crops, the water monster has reared its ugly head again.
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Pictures of some dry spots in our field due to lack of water.

Pictures of some dry spots in our field due to lack of water.

It was a few weeks ago now that I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a very disturbing post. This blog took me 3 weeks to put together, I wanted to compile accurate information and get several people to look it over.
The post claimed that the Coldwater River is endangered due to use of water for ranching and agriculture and it takes 15,500 liters of water to produce 1 kg of beef.

Since reading the post the information presented has occupied most of my thoughts. Those numbers presented are alarming and I wanted to dig deeper to figure out how they got to those numbers, the validity of the numbers and how to convey a ranchers side of the story about the amount of water we actually use in beef production. I encourage people to become informed from a variety of resources and perspectives in order to think realistically and logically about important topics and not accept one post on Facebook as the conclusive answer. These types of comments are the exact reason I wanted to start this blog, to give a voice to the rancher’s story, to those people who do use water, but who are using it to bring safe and nutritious food to the tables of fellow Canadian families and other families all around the world. I know that I am not going to change the mind of everybody in regards to beef production, but my hope is to give facts, so those looking for more information can make an informed decision.

Firstly, the Coldwater River is the river that flows through our ranch and the one we irrigate out of. To read this these stats is quite alarming, however as someone who has lived beside this river my whole life and for my father who has lived beside this river for 53 years I would like to weigh in on this conversation with some additional information to help folks make a broader informed decision. I feel frustrated when agriculture is held to blame for the demise of the river, when it is quite realistically a combination of factors. For example, Dr. Brian Riddell, President and CEO of the Pacific Salmon Foundation, notes that “low snowpack levels over the past winter have also diminished typical water levels in the rivers.” With regard to the fish, another factor influencing the number of fish in the Coldwater River is according to Dr. Riddell, is “that we’re seeing fish delaying in the salt water.” Once a salmon enters fresh water, it cannot return to the sea. Fish will instead wait until fresh water temperatures cool before making the transition, thereby delaying their journey home.
http://www.theweathernetwork.com/news/articles/dry-hot-summer-threatens-bc-salmon-run/53526/

Moreover, in my lifetime the river has undergone some significant changes and even more in my dad’s lifetime.

This rock my dad use to hay around when he was younger. When I was younger this rock use to be on the bank of the river and we use to jump off of it into the river and now the rock is in the middle of the river.

This rock my dad use to hay around when he was younger. When I was younger this rock use to be on the bank of the river and we use to jump off of it into the river and now the rock is in the middle of the river.


Here is a view from our back yard. When my dad was growing up the river was against the furthest bank this is how much the river has changed course due to high water levels in the spring.

Here is a view from our back yard. When my dad was growing up the river was against the furthest bank this is how much the river has changed course due to high water levels in the spring.


Currently, there are 5 people who have a water license from the Coldwater River and who use it for irrigation for Agriculture purposes. I think the changes are due to a variety of factors. A huge contributing factor would be the mountain pine beetle that kills trees in our forest, in order to try and stop the spread the beetles the dead trees were logged, salvaged and turned into chips and hog fuel. The Ministry of Forests and Range estimates that as of 2009 the total area of Crown forest land affected in BC by the pine beetle to be “16.3 million hectares.” “The ministry also estimates that a cumulative total of 675 million cubic metres of timber” have been affected. https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfp/mountain_pine_beetle/faq.htm
The red trees are dead due to Mountain Pine Beetle.

The red trees are dead due to Mountain Pine Beetle.


Now those trees that have been affected were once standing at the head waters of the Coldwater River and all the way along, many of them are not there anymore or are dead, therefore when the snow melts in the spring those tree roots are no longer there to suck up that water so a huge rush of water melts off in the spring and comes down the river. We have many memories of the Coldwater River flooding, taking land and almost a house. The house my husband, daughter and I live in was once my Grandpa’s house and one year the river flooded so badly it almost took out the house. Now that bank is riprapped to protect our house from future flooding. In addition, our ranch has worked with Nicola Tribal Council to complete projects to help protect and stabilize the banks, so the river doesn’t take any more land and to ensure the proper habitat for the fish. We worked with fisheries on project where they cabled logs together and then cabled the logs to the banks to support the bank structure, but also to give shade to fish.
The destructive path of the river, was once the river's channel, now a gravel bed.

The destructive path of the river, was once a channel, now a gravel bed.

Showing the flow of the river, not that low for Southern BC at the end of summer/ beginning of fall and more debris

Showing the flow of the river, not that low for Southern BC in August and more debris

This shows the river in the new channel this year. It has probably moved 150 m from last year.

This shows the river in the new channel this year. It has probably moved 150 m from last year.

This pictures shows the debris the rivers leaves behind when it floods.

This pictures shows the debris the rivers leaves behind when it floods.

This is one of the many projects a neighbour and us completed. It is a rock wall structure to help stabilize the banks in times of high water, but as you can tell the river has changed course and now there is just a small stream flowing by, so it is now ineffective.

This is one of the many projects a neighbour and us completed. It is a rock wall structure to help stabilize the banks in times of high water, but as you can tell the river has changed course and now there is just a small stream flowing by, so it is now ineffective.

Another project we completed to help stabilize the banks and give shade to the fish. These are logs cabled together and then cabled to the bank. However, the river has changed course and now there is just a stream flowing by, so these structures are pretty useless.

Another project we completed to help stabilize the banks and give shade to the fish. These are logs cabled together and then cabled to the bank. However, the river has changed course and now there is just a stream flowing by, so these strutters are pretty useless.

This is an old river channel and now all it is is a gravel bar and unproductive land.

This is an old river channel and now all it is is a gravel bar and unproductive land.

Having the river flood and change courses like it does not only affects us, but the fish as well. According to Dr. Riddell, “flash floods and a mix of rain and snow events threaten to disrupt river flows, endangering salmon eggs buried in underwater gravel.” In addition, now it has changed courses and has eaten up so much land that the river is no longer in one neat channel it has moved all over the place and has created a wide shallow channel which cause the temperature of the water to increase, which is not an ideal habit for fish egg and juvenile fish to grow and survive. There is some information on the river and some things we have to deal with and some reasons there are less fish coming up this river.
http://www.theweathernetwork.com/news/articles/dry-hot-summer-threatens-bc-salmon-run/53526/

Next, I always find these numbers interesting when I read them from anti-agriculture activists, the people who are trying to stop animal agriculture. I am by no means a scientist, so when I read this article and was thinking of ways to share my side of the story, I knew I had to do some research and gather more information than just my personal opinion and experiences. The fact finding is really important to me. This blog, I hope, is a platform for people to gather more information to make informed decisions, so I never want to spout off about things I don’t know about and voice my opinion as absolute truths, like it seems to happen quite often these days. We listen to celebrity bloggers and regard their opinion as absolute truths and disregard science. I never want to do that.
I talked to Dr. Reynold Bergen with the Beef Cattle Research Council and an expert from the provincial government for information. Dr. Reynold Bergan gave me an alternate number for the amount of water it takes to produce 1 kg of beef. According to researches at the University of California Davis “it takes 3682L to produce 1 kg of beef.” https://www.animalsciencepublications.org/publications/jas/pdfs/71/4/818?search-result=1

When reading numbers I caution people to don’t just take a stat for face value ask some further questions do some more research. For example, the number that was quoted on Facebook, Dr. Renyold Bergan explains that to come up with that number they included blue water, green water and gray water. Blue water is fresh water. “It’s fair to include blue water because water used for irrigating forage is water that could potentially have been used for other things, like irrigation for a different crop, or a golf course, or fish or hydro or swimming pools.”
Green water is rain water “so all of the rain that falls on pasture, hay or rangeland is billed against beef” explains Dr. Bergan and “since no one actually has any really good comprehensive rainfall measurements they calculate it.” This estimated calculation significantly distorts the final number and is not fair to put against beef production because it would rain regardless if cows were there or not. “Gray water the amount of water needed to dilute pollution, which is based on nitrogen run-off from crops grown for feed production” explains Dr. Bergan.
In addition, these calculations were done based on numbers from China, India, the Netherlands, and the US and then a weighted average was taken. The 15 500 number is the overall average for those countries. If you take out rain water (green water), the “water footprints” of beef shrinks by 94%. If you only include the irrigation water (blue water), that is the water used to grow the crops and cattle it shinks by 96% to 550 L per kg of beef. The drastic percentage shrink is caused by the article blaming livestock for water use when that water is rain “and it would have fallen regardless of what the land was used for golf course, national parks, parking lots and the smaller proportion is gray water that would have been polluted even if the land had been used to grow crops for human food.”
Moreover, when talking with an an expert from the provincial government, agriculture irrigation is about 70% efficient meaning 70% of the water is taken in my the plant roots and not evaporated, where as traditional lawn irrigation is 50-60% efficient. On our ranch we have installed underground mainline to use less water and our neighbour has installed underground mainline and pivots. Both of these improvements we did because we want to be more water efficient and the costs for these improvements comes out of our own pockets. Compare that to a stat I found on the government website about water use, “Canadians consume about 1.5 million cubic meters or approximately 4,400L per capita-per day.”
http://watergovernance.ca/wpcontent/uploads/2010/04/FS_Water_Use.pdf

Furthermore, maintaining a green lawn can be a massive drain of water. Irrigating a 1000 square foot lawn with half an inch of water takes about 1250 liters (330 gallons) It takes 68,137 liters to fill average back yard swimming pool (18,000 gallons). http://watergovernance.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/FS_Water_Use.pdf
I think as a society we need to start taking responsibility for the amount of household water we use and not be so quick to point fingers. Don’t get me wrong agriculture has room from improvement too we are not perfect, but we know that and try to make improvements and due studies to verify. Also, to not take a stat posted on Facebook as an absolute truth look into a bit more and see how they are arriving at the numbers. As I am posting this blog, our irrigation license is done for the year, so our pumps are shut off. I really hope we can make some improvements to the system for next year and raise some awareness. Happy Canadian Thanksgiving weekend!

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One thought on “A Rancher Weights In On The Water Debate

  1. Terry Balisky says:

    We appreciate the blogs. Thank you, Erika, for the information on agricultural and livestock water needs. It was certainly informative. You sure have a beautiful little girl. The Fossens say she’s a sweetie!

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