By Lyonel Doherty
Farmers in B.C. are protected by right-to-farm legislation that gives them a lot of agricultural power. But it appears these protections didn’t apply to two Oliver farmers nine years ago.
Today, Gordon Forbes and Art Dias are seeking compensation for lost revenue after an inadequate irrigation system made it very difficult to grow their crops on Meadows Drive.
Forbes said he was approached in 2008 and told about the Okanagan River Restoration Initiative (ORRI) and its work to preserve salmon habitat. The water diversion work impacted the farmers’ water intake pipes, which operated on a floating system.
Forbes said the engineers took the intake pipes and put them into the middle of the river (in a pit at the bottom).
“At the time, both Art and I said that’s never going to work; it’s always going to be filling up with sediment and sand, and that’s exactly what happened.”
In the first year in 2009, both farmers bought their seeds and planted them, but soon lost about four acres of ground crops and pear trees due to inadequate water supply.
“It was full of sand, so it was (we were) constantly cleaning the sprinkler heads and unplugging them. I was doing that full time just to keep the water going to the trees that we could keep,” Forbes said.
He pointed out that Dias lost half of his farm due to this problem. For example, some of his trees died, and he couldn’t plant new ones.
Forbes said he told the ORRI engineers that the best option was to either drill wells for them or move the intake pipes to a better location.
“They had these engineers come in and design this (ORRI) system but they didn’t listen to us at all.”
The problem went on for another six years.
“Between Art and I, in those six years, we could only irrigate one farm at a time.”
(Forbes would water for two days, then Dias would water for two days.) “In the middle of summer, that’s just not enough water. We were going back to a desert here,” Forbes said.
At this point the farmers were very frustrated, particularly when the officials were not responding to emails or calling them back.
But then a “guardian angel” stepped in, said Forbes, referring to a mediator who worked on their behalf. Finally, a meeting was scheduled and Forbes presented their case. The result was a new pumping system.
“They did what we told them in the first place, they moved us back to where the river came back to a single course.”
But Forbes said so much taxpayers’ money was wasted during the fight.
“Every time we had meetings, they all came and they got paid. We didn’t get paid. We actually had to leave our work.”
Although the new pumping system gives the farmers full water capacity, the problem set them back a few years.
“We lost so much income. We lost a third of our income and he (Dias) lost half of his income.”
Now the farmers are seeking monetary restitution for lost productivity and equipment replacement, such as pumps and sprinklers heads.
Forbes said local MLA Linda Larson helped them get the ball rolling in this dispute.
Larson told the Chronicle that she was able to get the farmers a new intake system.
“I do support them in seeking compensation for lost production during the time they were unable to access water.”
Forbes said he contacted the Ministry of Agriculture, but they only relied on what the engineers and ORRI told them.
“Basically the Ministry of Agriculture walked away from us.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations responded to the Chronicle’s queries on this matter.
He said the Forbes/Dias intake was modified for ORRI following a series of in-depth discussions with landowners in 2008. This included a “change in the type and location of the system upon the landowners’ request.”
The spokesperson said various measures were taken (over the next five years) by the ministry and the ORRI committee to resolve the water supply concerns.
In 2014, discussions began on redesigning the intake system, resulting in a new, state-of-the-art intake and pump installed on each farm in 2016.
The spokesman said the Canadian Okanagan Basin Technical Working Group continues to review the farmers’ compensation request.
Forbes also contacted the Agricultural Land Commission, wanting to file a grievance because their water licences had been violated.
“It says right in the right-to-farm act that no one shall interrupt the water supply to a farm.”
But Forbes said he was told that the ALC doesn’t handle complaints from farmers, only complaints against farmers.
When all is said and done, Forbes looks at this situation as a cautionary tale for other farmers.
“Make sure you are well protected. Don’t think that you can rely on different government departments to help you out.”
It was a challenging period, especially since both Forbes and Dias lost their fathers during that time.
“To see all of their hard work over the years drying up and dying was really hard on both families,” Forbes said.