Crops on the Saanich Peninsula are relying on irrigation during a record dry spell. (Tim Collins)

Drought and climate change challenge Saanich Peninsula farms

Dry spell has area farmers buying water from the CRD

  • Aug. 17, 2017 12:00 p.m.

Tim Collins / News staff

As climate change continues to impact the planet and discussions of its effect on the world rise in frequency and volume, it’s sometimes easy to view the issue through a theoretical lens, without recognizing an immediate impact upon our lives.

That is, unless you happen to be a farmer on the Saanich Peninsula and have spent the last three months looking to the sky for a sign of rain. But that rain has not come in a year that seems on track to becoming the driest in decades, with less than 0.7 mm of precipitation falling in July and August.

“This farm has been running for over 100 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. We’ve got our own irrigation pond with about 12 million gallons that fills up during the winter rains, but without it we’d have to be buying water and that can get expensive,” said Larry Sluggett of Sluggett Farms.

“We’re only farming about 80 acres right now, but without irrigation we couldn’t even do that. We’re pouring water on the fields every day right now.”

One of the farmers who is buying water from the CRD is Verne Mitchell of Mitchell Farms.

Mitchell’s operation is a landmark on the Saanich Peninsula and most years his 500 acre farm does not have to purchase any municipal water to maintain its operation.

“In an ordinary year we have reservoirs and springs on the property that provide water for about 60 per cent of our needs. The other 40 per cent of the moisture we need is generally provided by rain,” said Mitchell.

But not this year.

“We’ve been farming this land since my grandfather came here in 1860. We’re six generations in now and I can tell you that I have never seen a summer this dry. That 40 per cent of water we got from rain? We’ve had to buy that this year to keep the crops alive by irrigating.”

Mitchell is confident of maintaining his operation this year and in the immediate future, but worries about the impact on agricultural activity if the dry summers persist.

“We get our water from the Sooke Reservoir right now and, except for the expense that farmers pretty much have to pay from their own pockets, we can still operate. What happens in the future if that water isn’t available?” wondered Mitchell.

Trevor Murdock, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria’s Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, explained that, while Mitchell’s concerns about continuing dry summers are well founded in current climate modelling, his fears of water shortages for irrigation are probably not.

“Overall, the models we have predict an overall increase in precipitation for the region although the droughts we’re seeing during the summer are likely to continue. I know it sounds contradictory but it really means that we’re likely to see far more extremes in precipitation events during the winter months followed by extended dry spells during the summer,” said Murdock.

A recent CRD report to which Murdock contributed, projects an increase of 31 per cent more precipitation on very wet days and an overall increase of five per cent in precipitation by 2050. In the same time frame, the amount of precipitation during summer months is predicted to decrease by 20 per cent and the duration of dry spells to increase by an identical amount.

“All I know is that the weather seems to be changing, and it’s making it harder for farmers to make a living. I irrigate in the morning and by nightfall the fields are dry again,” said Mitchell.

He also recounted a story from his youth during a drought that hit the Saanich Peninsula particularly hard and threatened the livelihood of area farmers.

“I remember it was a dry year, a year very much like this one and it happened back in the late ’40s. It was so dry and a lot of people back then didn’t have the irrigation systems we have now, so they were looking for anything they could do,” recalled Mitchell.

“Someone … I’m not sure who … came up with the idea of bringing in a rain maker. The fellow came in from Manitoba, I think, and he went up on Keating Ridge and he had this pendulum device that he was swinging back and forth, back and forth. Well, after three days and nights of swinging this pendulum, he packed up his things and left, saying the storms were too far away to call in,” laughs Mitchell.

“I’m not sure how much they paid him, or if her returned the money, but the rain never came … not because of this fellow anyway.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

“Isolation is normal for us,” says Saanich dad with cystic fibrosis

Gordon Head man says now’s the time to approve life-saving cystic fibrosis drug

Victoria business still busy as people turn to books while in self-isolation

Russell Books says certain genres have gained popularity during COVID-19

Farmers’ markets still open in Greater Victoria

The Moss Street and Esquimalt Farmers’ markets are scheduled to take place, with slight variations

Sidney sets up temporary rest stop for truck drivers transporting critical supplies

Drivers can rest, find washrooms, access nearby restaurants

Victoria Police see new trends in calls due to COVID-19

Police link jump in domestic, mental health calls to pandemic

Trudeau announces 75% wage subsidy for small businesses amid COVID-19

This is up from the previously announced 10 per cent wage subsidy

COVID-19: A message from the publisher

We will be making some changes to our print editions during these unprecedented times

World update, 9:30 p.m. March 27: Positive news in Korea as U.S. hits 100,000 cases

The United States now has the most coronavirus cases of any country in the world

VIDEO: Penguins roam empty halls of Vancouver Aquarium

COVID-19 has forced the Vancouver Aquarium to close access to guests – leaving room for its residents

COVID-19: Qualicum Beach youngster gets car parade for his sixth birthday

Friends get creative after party cancelled due to ongoing pandemic

Kids get back to learning in B.C., online

Ministry of Education rolls out new tool for school

Nanaimo RCMP ask for help locating 17-year-old girl believed to be with 36-year-old man

Mary Cyprich, missing since Thurday, might be in company of Force Forsythe

67 more B.C. COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Vancouver region

Positive tests found in Surrey, Langley long-term care facilities

‘Now is not the time to bag that peak’: BCSAR manager discourages risky outdoor adventures

Call volumes are not going down, even as the COVID-19 pandemic persists

Most Read