Forests Minister Bruce Ralston is encouraging farmers to comply with a fish protection order on the Salmon River, but it comes as locals continue to push back.
During the provincial drought and wildfire update Wednesday (Sept. 13), Ralston was asked about the situation in Westwold. Ralston said he understands officials from his ministry have met with affected farmers.
There is a “balance required” on the Salmon River, said Ralston, adding that the advice given was that the salmon run would be wiped out as the water levels are so low.
“It’s not a question of skipping a season and then coming back. It’s really a profound environmental question where the salmon run would be wiped out.”
The Water Sustainability Act, he said, requires the consideration of agricultural interest “absolutely” as a factor before making an order.
The B.C. government placed fish protection orders on rivers in the Thompson Okanagan and on Vancouver Island in August, citing extreme drought conditions that continue to affect river levels. The government said by temporarily restricting water use for forage crops in the Salmon River and Bessette Creek, it would protect spawning chinook. Under the order, forage crop farmers in Westwold are unable to irrigate until at least Sept. 30.
Following that order, farmers in Westwold were upset, fearing their crops would be lost. A community meeting was held Sept. 2 with more than 200 people in attendance, who were joined by seven MLAs after a video documentary focusing on the issues in Westwold caught the politicians’ attention. Since then, part two of the documentary has been released.
The politicians promised to hear the concerns of locals and bring them back to Victoria.
Ralston added Wednesday that the government first looks to voluntary compliance with reductions and “that has been the practice and indeed the response of most water users.”
“What the scientific advice is that significant work has been done to gauge the connection between the wells and the affected rivers and the studies and the data collected by the province indicate clearly that the wells in the Salmon River area are connected to the river and this is not new or recently announced science.”
He added the data shows there was a need for the temporary protection order for salmon in 2021. Continued mapping, he said, will happen to ensure the data stays up to date.
Severe drought conditions remain in the province, with nearly 80 per cent of the province in either Level 4 or 5 – the highest levels.
Ralston said the province is developing a water scarcity dashboard that will be available for local governments and First Nations to help with their forecasting, modelling and real-time decision making for water supply.
Ralston said given the “unprecedented scale and severity of drought conditions” in B.C., the government knows there could be adverse impacts on some watersheds. The province is working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and First Nations to address the ongoing challenges facing wild salmon, including the drought impacts on fish habitat.
– With files from Brendan Shykora