John Vanden Dungen is worried about the future of his farm.
Vanden Dungen is the owner of the 380-acre Meadow Green Farms on Koksilah Road, a dairy farm with more than 300 cows that his father began decades ago.
It’s one of seven dairy farms in that area, and one of the approximately 30 dairy farms that continue operations on the Vancouver Island.
Vanden Dungen hopes to hand the farm over to his two sons and nephew when he eventually retires, but concerns around the availability of water have put those plans in jeopardy.
In August, the province restricted water use by select users on the Koksilah River for several weeks for the first time to protect fish populations, which were considered under threat due to the extremely low water flows in the river at the time.
That meant that specified licences that authorize water use directly from the Koksilah River and its tributaries, and users of wells in aquifers that are hydraulically connected to the south Cowichan-area river, had to cease all diversion and use of water for industrial purposes and for irrigation of forage crops, such as hay and corn.
Vanden Dungen’s farm has had a water licence to irrigate his corn and grass crops, which are used to feed the dairy herd, with water from the river since 1953, and he had to stop watering his forage fields for many weeks for the first time during what is typically the driest time of the year.
Vanden Dungen said that, fortunately, much of his forage crops had already been harvested by the time the restrictions were put in place in late August, but there was still a risk of losing the last part of the harvest.
“Luckily, we got some rain and we were able to harvest the rest of the crops, but if the river had begun drying up earlier in the season, we would have been in trouble,” he said.
“We have to grow our own forage crops to remain viable because it would be very cost prohibitive for us to have to bring the food in when you consider ferry and other costs.”
Vanden Dungen said there’s no doubt that climate change is playing a part in the area’s water woes, as evidenced by smaller snow packs in recent years on surrounding mountains, but he believes that a lot of the problem is man made.
“People say we are experiencing more droughts, but I have been farming all of my life and have come to the conclusion that weather is weather and every year is different,” he said.
“The biggest issue I can see is that the province began handing out water licences along the Koksilah River like Halloween candy decades ago with no real oversight as to how much water was being used. It’s a problem that’s only getting worse.”
Vanden Dungen said development plans continue in the area and he’s concerned that officials are considering them with no forward thinking as to where the water is to come from to support them.
He said officials from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development have scheduled a meeting on Nov. 20 with the local residents and farmers to discuss introducing some sort of comprehensive water management plan for the area.
“I’m pretty skeptical about it,” Vanden Dungen said.
“We were told over the last two years that if they had to turn off some of the water, those with older licences like ours would be among the last on the list, but then they said it was a fish emergency and shut us down anyway.”
Vanden Dungen said one option would be for him to build his own water reservoir, but the water would still be under the control of the province.
He said that with the growth in the area continuing, consideration should be made to developing new water reservoirs high up in the watershed system.
“There’s lot of untapped valleys in the Koksilah watershed,” Vanden Dungen said.
“The area gets three feet of rain a year so there’s no shortage of water there. I’m getting pretty worried. I’m not sure where we’ll end up if they continue to shut off our water.”
Alison Nicholson is the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s director for Cowichan Station/Sahtlam/Glenora in which Meadow Green Farms is situated.
She said that while she believes climate change is playing a larger role in the area’s water issues than Vanden Dungen acknowledges, she agrees that the province issued too many water licences there decades ago.
She said that at the time, there was little knowledge of the interconnection between groundwater, which is located in underground aquifers, and surface water that comes from lakes, rivers and streams.
“We now have an over-commitment problem when it comes to water licensing because we are all using too much water, and that could mean trouble,” Nicholson said.
“We definitely need more water storage because, unlike the Cowichan River and its aquifer, the Koksilah River doesn’t have a big lake at the top of it.”
Nicholson said she’s not convinced that enough scientific work and study is being done on the hydrology of the Koksilah watershed.
“I don’t think there’s enough understanding on how the aquifer recharges itself, and enough research on finding ways for it to hold water and let it out slowly over the seasons each year,” she said.
“I don’t know where this is all going, and I think we need to have a conversation to identify opportunities. The government, and individual farmers too, have to step up and invest in water storage. But it’s expensive and we may not have the taxpayer base here to accomplish this alone.”
A statement from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said that no water licences have been issued, except for domestic purposes, on the Koksilah River and its tributaries since 1980 because it was recognized that the remaining flow was needed to support the aquatic habitat.
“Since then many wells have been drilled to access water within the Koksilah watershed,” the statement said.
“Through a recent study commissioned by the ministry, it was determined that all known wells within the Koksilah watershed are likely hydraulically connected to the Koksilah River or one of its tributaries. The added stress due to diversion of water from wells in addition to climate change has likely contributed significantly to the low summer flows experienced in the Koksilah River.”
The statement said the ministry recognizes that annual fish protection orders are not a long-term solution, and the ministry and Cowichan Tribes are working on a water sustainability plan for the Koksilah watershed.
“A WSP, under the province’s Water Sustainability Act (which was implemented in 2016 to regulate water users in times of critical water scarcity) is seen to be a sustainable long-term solution to the challenges faced in the Koksilah watershed,” the statement said.
“It is also possible that alternative water sources and options for storage may be investigated and implemented through a WSP.”
The statement said that some farmers in the Koksilah watershed hold storage licences which allow them to divert water into storage during times of the year when water is abundant for use during the low-flow season.
“But a water licence is not a guarantee of water,” the statement said.
“It only gives the licence-holder the right to divert and use water if it is available. Storage is an option that water users can consider if they want to ensure that water is available to them during the irrigation season.”