Joe Lebeau/ Hashmark Photography

Column: two places to store water as protection against changing climate

Columnist David Zirnhelt offers some ideas for water conservation

I do a lot of musing before I write. This week I have thought a lot about and participated in hours of discussion about how we respond to challenges of climate change, however it is induced, or whatever the cause.

Farmers and ranchers deal with changes every day. More extreme events jerk us around.

I only feel better about our disturbing situation if I do something about it. That is empowering.

A few days ago, I took three grandchildren on a “work mission” to put up some temporary electric fencing to utilize some stockpiled grass. We use protein supplements (tubs of molasses and supplements) to make sure the cattle can digest the course mature grasses.

Almost every week I get a call from one of these kids, a six-year old, who asks if I have any “work” for him – riding or moving cattle on foot. I would be a fool not to say yes, of course!

So sometimes I rearrange meaningful work. I love the company and I love the willingness to help. They carry the portable posts (step in electric fence posts) and rolls of wire. Sometimes they like to hold my hand. The cattle are big and crowd around waiting for new pasture.

However, sometimes there is the unexpected. In this case, the creek in that pasture which usually is dry this time of the year is overflowing the banks and making boot-high rivulets through the field.

The combination of bent-over five to seven foot tall grass and the underfoot water meant stumbling and wet feet for one of them. To deal with the wet feet, I took off my warm socks, and put my muck boots back on. The cold grandson got the warm socks on his feet inside his wet boots.

On the way back out of the field he also got a shoulder ride, my price paid for the help with the fencing. Someday this investment in time will really pay off: when I can’t do the heavy lifting any longer!

I did tell the three of them that this rise in the water table was because we had rain, not snow, and that it had recharged the water table. Did they understand?

The point here is that sometimes we have excess. This creek feeds into the Fraser River and then the ocean. If we want the water for pasture and hay crops we have to interrupt the run off.

For some watersheds, there is the concern that with freeze up happening without snow, water can’t run into the ground water table or soil. Instead it runs off. There is not much we can do about that.

What are two ways of conserving water?

First, we can manage for healthy, larger root systems in our fields. That means not overgrazing them. In some cases, we can add plants by seeding into the sod new plants that can create channels for water by their deep roots being left to die – forage radish and turnips come to mind.

Second, we can build storage dams to catch the spring freshet. The economics of this might be challenging. But if all the beneficiaries of stored water collaborate, this is possible. These beneficiaries include, fisheries, downstream domestic water users, agricultural producers, firefighters, wildlife.

The future must include some strategic investments (public and private) in this type of rural infrastructure. And the costs can’t all be on the holders of agriculture water licenses!

David Zirnhelt is a rancher in the Cariboo and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake Campus.

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