Gordon Forbes (left) and Arthur Dias are in better spirits now that their water woes are finally resolved. They are seeking compensation for the crop loss they suffered for six years due to their irrigation intake being affected by the Okanagan River Restoration Initiative. Jordyn Thomson/Western News

Oliver farmers facing future financial drought

Gordon Forbes and Arthur Dias dealt with crop loss for the better half of a decade

For the better half of a decade, Gordon Forbes and Arthur Dias have watched their farms and livelihood essentially dry up.

The two neighbours live within the Town of Oliver, with their land backing on to Okanagan River. This has been their irrigation supply for their fruit trees since their parents began farming the land in 1968 (Dias’ farm) and 1974 (Forbes’ farm).

They say both of their farms were negatively affected when the Okanagan River Restoration Initiative (ORRI), led by the Province of B.C. in 2009, sought to restore the salmon population in the river. The project saw the river twinned just before it reaches Forbes and Dias’ farms upstream, lessening the amount of water they could access.

“It impacts us financially, big time. I was planning on just staying with the Town of Oliver for 10 years, and here I am 18 years later still working for them,” said Dias, who works with the town in addition to running his farm.

“We have had to put everything on hold. We were going to put in greenhouses, a fruit stand. We still have the farmers’ markets because we understand the value of selling to local people. But everything got put on hold,” said Forbes.

According to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, the project was funded by U.S. public utility districts as compensation for impacts to the Columbia basin fish stock from downstream hydroelectricity activity.

Image from Okanagan Basin Water Board

Between the two farms, they currently have 11 unused acres of land that they haven’t been able to expand on because of the lack of water supply. Both were forced to cut their crops by about one-third to stay afloat during this time, and as of today, have still been unable to expand their planting and regain that capital.

“We were going through a transitional phase on our farm, so we were starting to tear out apples and go through the replant program. So for the first three years that we had this problem, I had to cancel my trees,” said Dias. “Until we get the water figured out, I can’t plant anything.”

“We had baby pear trees, and we lost them and our cherry block. We were able to salvage three rows out of six, but it’s all rock so it was a lot of digging to move them,” said Forbes.

The two say they were in favour of the project because they wanted to see the salmon population flourish, but the lack of consultation with them is what ultimately caused their problems.

Related: Town of Oliver lobbying for crucial irrigation fix

“We had Stu Mould of Mould Engineering and he explained everything that they were going to do,” said Dias. “Told us that they were going to get us out of the river and give us wells.”

“We thought that was a good plan, because then we’d be out. We didn’t know the geology at the time though,” said Forbes. “So we were told later on that there was no possibility of getting water if they drilled here (for wells).”

Dias said after that, they dealt with another representative with the company who said they would be moving their intake down the river, “out 20 feet from where (they) originally were.”

Technically, the land is the ministry’s, but both Forbes and Dias obtained two licences each allowing them to access the river for farm irrigation.

“The ministry was opening oxbows in the river to make for a better salmon habitat, which is awesome. But they didn’t consult with us at all, they just imposed this system on us,” said Forbes.

Image from the Okanagan Basin Water Board.

The two say the project overseers installed a new intake system for them to use, but they had to fix the rig themselves when it became plugged with sediment in spring 2010. The province was the project lead on ORRI until 2012 when it was taken over by the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA).

“Modifications followed a series of in-depth discussions with landowners (2008) and included a change in the type and location of the intake system (upon the land-owners request) from a single floating intake (that was occasionally damaged by river tubers) to a single sinking intake that would be less affected by recreationists on the river. These changes were made against the advice of ORRI members,” said a spokesperson with the ministry.

“The pump was right in the middle of the river in a pit at the bottom, so in the springtime, the water level was about five or six feet higher so there was no way for us to maintain it or anything,” said Forbes.

“We had to dig down on the mainline and install valves and we bought flexible hoses and foot valves put them close to the shore see we could actually get water,” said Dias. “In the first spring, we had to go out into the river with shovels and shovelled for four or five hours in chest deep water to fix it.”

Their fix worked, but they still had to alternate who could water their trees on which day. This irrigation process went on until 2016 when a new intake system was supplied and the only reimbursement they received was for the parts they installed on the intake system, totalling about $500 according to Dias.

“Since the modification (to a sinking intake), various measures were taken by both the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development and the ORRI committee over the next five years to resolve water supply concerns,” said the spokesperson.

Related: Meet Your Farmer: Forbes Family Farm

Forbes said their land is part of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and “did not receive much help from them,” so they began to reach out to the ministry once they signed the project completion letter.

They say they are not discounting the effort of providing a new intake system, but say more needs to be done to make up for the losses they suffered between 2009 and 2015 by affecting their water supply in the first place.

“They did what we told them to do in the first place and brought (the new intake) back down (away from where the river is split) until it goes back to one course. The water will be constant and deeper, and there won’t be all the fluctuation,” said Forbes.

They said they are disappointed in the amount of taxpayer dollars “that were wasted when it could have been done very simply with (their) cooperation, the people who have experience here.” For example, Forbes said although they and the overseers had learned the geology of the land — that it was all blue clay down to bedrock and the possibility of establishing wells was low — money was still spent drilling, to no avail.

“We did have support from municipal people, agreeing that we should have been consulted. But the provincial government and the agricultural (department) were terrible — they were the ones who should have backed us,” said Forbes.

“I remember Gordon (Forbes) called the ALR and they said, ‘We don’t deal with farmers’ problems, we deal with people that have a problem with farming practices.’ So who protects the farmer then? Who do we phone?” said Dias.

The two requested to be taken out of the ALR as a result, but still remain within it. Forbes said it’s like “being stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Though the new pump station “still has issues,” Forbes and Dias say they don’t intend to bring them up with the ONA and will fix them on their own. Though they are within the Town of Oliver, using town water to irrigate the land was not possible, especially since the water is chlorinated and Forbes runs an organic farm.

“They’re only a few farms in this area, so (the Town of Oliver) is not twinned for irrigation and drinking water,” said Dias. “They looked at upgrading the pump house, the electrical bills, and it was half a million dollars to just upgrade the pump house, let alone bringing a line over here.”

Overall, the two say the project didn’t seem well-thought out as it now looks very different than when it was initially executed. For example, they said time and resources were spent digging and placing large rocks to accommodate the salmon oxbows, and now these rocks are essentially buried within the sediment.

“They spent all this money on putting rocks here for the salmon, and it’s all gone, it’s all infilled. All you can see is the tips of the rocks now,” said Dias. “They even initially wanted to put our intake four feet from the other side of the river, like how would we maintain our system?”

According to the spokesperson, Forbes and Dias requested crop loss compensation from the project on Feb. 9 of this year. Forbes said they don’t want to “spend taxpayers going through the court system.”

“Fruit trees take five years to produce, so we’re behind how many years now,” said Dias.

Forbes said they’re considering to switching to grapes now because they take less time to mature and produce fruit for the wine industry, which “is unfortunate because (they) were food producers before.”

The request for compensation for Dias’ and Forbes’ farms is still under review after more information on the issue was collected in March 2018.

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.

Jordyn Thomson | Reporter

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