Water Footprint

The term “water footprint” is part of the vocabulary of the green revolution. It is used to describe the amount of water used by an activity. I’ve recently heard the suggestion that dwarf orchards reduce farming’s water footprint. I went out to have a look.

Dwarf Royal Gala Orchard (Okanagan Landing)
This is what is referred to as a low water footprint orchard. Such orchards allow for rapid replacement of trees by new varieties capable of fetching higher store prices. It is a capital-intensive business not for the faint-of-heart.

Here’s a close-up view of trees grown on the same training system:

Slender Spindle Training System (Ellison Lake)
These trees are three years old. Yield per tree will likely be in the range of 10 – 20 apples, doubling in a couple years, a low figure partially offset by a high number of trees per acre. 

For comparison’s sake, here’s what was referred to as a high footprint orchard:

Macintosh Orchard
Ellison Lake. Yield is going to be around the same as a mature slender spindle orchard. Fifty years ago, the largest trees around would fill eight times the volume of space as this tree, which has been pruned hard to keep it low for easy picking.

On first glance, it seems like contemporary dwarf orchards are incredibly efficient. After all, they produce around 70% as much fruit as the best of older orchards. One would expect that the water footprint would be correspondingly low, but it isn’t, because the total exposed ground area per acre remains constant, regardless of the height of the trees.

On second glance, water usage for apple production in the Okanagan decreased 19,000,000 cubic metres between 1991 and 2001 — the decade in which most older orchards were replaced with dwarf orchards, and most older water technologies were replaced with new ones. Tonnage remained the same.

On third glance, in a hundred years, Okanagan farmers have moved from ditch irrigation, to sprinklers moved on a twelve-hour rotation, to tiny, high-tech microjet sprinklers capable of delivering precise amounts of water exactly where and when it is required. Technological improvements have been huge. Look to them for your savings.

On fourth glance: 

Bisbee Orchard (Ellison Lake)

These unpicked double red delicious apples represent a significant amount of water that went to naught. The problem isn’t the training system. It’s that nobody wants this junk. Including the local juice processing plant that prefers to bring its juice in by tankers from the United States. 

To sum up, a 30% saving of water due to new water technology seems to me to be offset perfectly by a 30% decrease in production per acre, for a dubious saving. If, however, we could return to orchard technologies that used the entire vertical and horizontal space of the orchard, perhaps we could actually achieve some part of a further 30% reduction on the 61,000,000 cubic metres of water that go annually towards apple production in the Okanagan. That would be 19,000,000 cubic metres, by the way, or about 5 centimetres of water over the entire 351 square kilometres of Okanagan Lake.

The Earth is Alive

We are not alone.

This is fantastic news.

Burrow in the Valley

It looks like the resident is at home, too, waiting out the months of bad hunting. Such times of rest and waiting can last over two months.

Here’s what’s likely a foraging burrow:

The Mouth of the Earth

Here’s what the creator of that burrow looks like:

American Badger Source
One of Canada’s most endangered species. I first came upon one digging under a ponderosa pine high above the Similkameen in 1973. It’s good to meet again.

What does a badger ask of life? Marmots and ground squirrels to eat, and dirt to dig in. A bit of sun. No cars. Cars are rough on badgers. They are otherwise tolerant of humans, although humans are not very tolerant of badgers, probably because they’re so darned solitary. Badgers come together briefly to mate, mothers hang out with their young, and then the wanderlust hits them and they flow off into the land, wherever they can find something to eat. They have been known to move 110 kilometres in a season. Which is good, as long as they stay off the roads.

The Major Predator of Badgers Source

The badgers that have recently colonized the Marmot Ridge Golf Course in 100 Mile House, far to the north of the Okanagan, have a terrible commute.

Male badgers maintain a number of burrows and keep moving, often day by day by day. Overall, badger behaviour similar to that of otters in our Interior lakes, who fish like crazy and then move to another lake system when the fishing gets poor. I find the relationship between such animals and the land to be an invaluable guide to seeing our way into the future, such as here:

Okanogan Valley, Riverside Washington
Humans have colonized the grizzly bear habitat of the valley bottom, as well as the lower slopes (the best badger territory tends to occur on the edges of forested areas and grass.) If we were to lose the badgers, too, the land, we’d begin to think that the land was ours.

Here’s how math works, badger style, I think: sun + soil + a little bit of water = grass. Grass + marmots = badgers. However, humans also inhabit marmot territory, which goes like this, I think: Grass-grass = humans + cows = humans. Hmmm. Here’s what I mean:

Marmot Habitat Stacked up in Pleasing Aesthetic Shapes.

Omak, Washington. (No badgers.) 

In much of Western North America, this is what is goes for an artistic installation. Art here gets expressed through economic metaphors. Here’s another installation in the series:

Abandoned Packinghouse at Similkameen Mouth (Ellisforde Washington)
Seemingly, humans are as good at abandoning habitat as badgers are. Like badgers, we leave behind our, um, foraging burrows. This is not the first lost opportunity, either. There used to be three Similkameen villages in this location. Three. Villages.

Luckily for us all, badgers generously accept all the land as their own. For instance, this kind of thing means nothing to badgers:

Cross-species Nonsense

This is the right place for this kind of old-fashioned thinking.

Badgers give us entrance into the land. In the process, they leave 3-D maps of where they have gone, such as:

The Okanagan Underground
Note the claw marks.

When the land is alive like this, so are humans. What’s more, it puts human habitat in perspective, which is always good:

Okanogan River, Riverside Washington

This is not the Okanogan. It is a line of habitat that snakes through other planes and hillsides and cliffs and lines of habitat. Together, those habitats are the Okanogan. It’s not just the water that flows.

When we inhabitat a habitat, and learn to work with its processes, it doesn’t mean, necessarily, that we inhabitat all the habitats in which it is embedded. It means, rather, that we move through a network of energy flows.

That is one of the things to learn from badgers.

Adding and Subtracting Value

Words are curious things. Here are two, often used together by government and industry: value and added. Together they indicate a concept by which an area of production (vegetable growing, perhaps) can increase its economic activity through additional processing or handling of its products. Here’s a weed that my grandmother used to collect to make tea:

Chamomile Flowers

Just add water.

Here’s what it looks like once it has been magicked up by the Value Added Industry:

Sleepy Time

I love the “100%” natural thing. One of the neat little sleights of hand of the 1970s.

Value Added is often put forward as a model of how to move from a resource economy to a rich, productive one with the ability to turn human energy (growing a head of lettuce) into industrial energy (packing that lettuce, packaging it, wholesaling it, advertising it, and selling it in a retail setting, for instance.) Here’s how the British Columbia government puts it:


You see how it works? 2.42 billion dollars of production becomes 19.7 billion dollars of food retailing value, paid for by the people of British Columbia. From the standpoint of citizens, that’s a loss of 17.28 billion dollars of value.

Common wisdom is that this money is not actually lost, but is returned to the people through employment. Not always. Here are some disturbing numbers on that:

Citizens Receiving Social Assistance Payments in the North Okanagan

Crunching those numbers, about 7.5% of working age North Okanagan citizens (ages 19-54) receive social assistance, or about 50% more than the provincial average —  in a major agricultural area, yet. In an area population of 77,000, this means that 3660 people are being compensated for their lack of ability to purchase the value added to local food.

These are not new problems. Back in the early 1970s, the back-to-the-land movement had many of us making our own breakfast cereals from simple ingredients. We added the value, and benefited from it. It looked like this:

Granola Outside of the Box

And then we watched as it entered the value-added stream and lost its human-land connection. This product is still around. It looks like this:

Value Added Granola

In England now and definitely in the box. It’s, like, “New!”, right?

When personal work was removed from the equation of creating food through this process back in the 1970s, I remember feeling betrayed, at the age of 13, which is a tough thing. I felt that a theft had been committed on my future. Well, time passes, two generations have kept up the work of adding value and paying a little more for it than they get, our economies have drifted away from economy to packaging, and there are more people hungry than ever. Here’s a thought:

Pumpkin Seeds, Lightly Salted and Toasted

Making use of those jack o’ lanterns after the big Halloween candy fest.

Here’s another:

Mint Tea in the Raw

Straight from the weed patch.

I think the government should start helping us get away from the economy. If we’re going to save this earth, we need a relationship to the land, not to the packaging industry. It happens one mint leaf at a time.

Our Pack Leader

For ten years my friend and tracker Winston and I went out every day into the world. In all, we walked 15,000 kilometres of this planet together, and when I slipped on a hill or the ice, there was always someone there to hold me up. He was also always eager to show me what my frail body had missed, which I honoured by paying attention. In the last few months a couple hundreds of those kilometres led through the grasslands and into this blog. Today, we celebrate our co-editor here. Mr. Winston left us yesterday morning. Good Boy, Winston.

Your Blog Co-Host, On Location

October 2011. Pillar Lake.

No one loved life like Winston did. We’ll continue to walk in his trails.

Your Editors, Heading Out Along the Gray Canal

Peace to you all.

For more on Winston, including the long, award-winning poem he helped write, please wander over to our other online home.

Xeriscaping Alternatives

It’s all the buzz these days: xeriscaping. It’s a big name for a kind of landscaping that conserves water. Where do you start? It’s easy. You have your new home in the Okanagan and you want to, like, blend in. Grass will do the trick:

Xeriscaping with Grass, on a Budget

Don’t be fooled by the low-water gravel landscaping here. This grass needs watering every second night, after midnight, controlled by timers. High on romance, but a bit low on the water-conservation index.

Looking for something with more historical connection to the land, and less greedy for water? Here’s an option:

Landscaping, with a Farm Flair

If you are going to landscape in the style of the valley’s agricultural heritage, don’t be put off by the expense of fruit trees, irrigation schemes, crop failure, marketing schemes, and all that. They’ll bust your head. Just remember: agriculture is as much about fences as it is about growing things.  The choice of green for your walls is important, though. An excellent low-water choice.

A somewhat more lively low-water choice, however, might be this:

Wild Juniper

The best of both worlds! It lives, it grows, it’s green and it needs no water at all.

The choice is yours. Now, how hard was that?

Eagle and Turtle

There’s an old Okanogan story about Eagle and Turtle. Here’s a simple version from Colville, Washington. A more complex version from the head of Okanagan Lake is embedded in an interview, here. In the interest of exploring cosmologies in which landscape and stories interacts, could this be the turtle?

Turtle Mountain, Vernon
If it looks like a turtle and is called a turtle, and is in the shallows of an ancient lake, on the banks of an ancient river, might it be a turtle?

It even has turtle eggs…

Volcanic Glass, Turtle Mountain

… and turtle scales…

Eroded Basalt Columns, Turtle Mountain

Of course, the story needs an eagle. Here it is:

Eagle, Turtle Mountain
This raptor is perched just behind the turtle’s head, looking west. He looks worried. He should be, as the story goes.

Here’s a closer view:

Eagle’s Head

Up close, he looks less like an eagle than a collection of animals pretending to be one. Maybe the story is more sly than we think.

The mountain itself, appears to contain dozens of other animals, which the story says were held as slaves by eagle, until turtle freed them by flying faster than eagle, which was tricky in itself. Here’s a pair of tadpoles:

Tadpoles on Turtle Mountain

…or is that a bullhead … with two heads?

… and a lizard …

Lizard on Turtle Mountain

…and this …

A Human Figure? A Bear?


That’s the thing about stories like this. By looking at the land we find ourselves searching our hearts for points of recognition. And it will be a long time before the searching ends. In the meantime, the land is held whole.

The mountain is a treasure trove of figures like this, as is the entire valley stretching five kilometres west to Okanagan Lake. A map of the story would be a very interesting thing indeed.


Wild Harvest

Since farmland prices in the Canadian Okanagan has been pushed to dizzy heights by the scarcity created by the International Border between Osoyoos and Oroville, and no young person can farm anymore without first growing old or inheriting an oil well, I got to thinking, what would farming be like without land?  This maybe?

Alfalfa Sprouts in the Wild

There are a lot of ecological niches for alfalfa, including ditches, lawns, and all manner of spaces waiting for development. The seeds, like the ones in the spiral-shaped seed shells above, can then be sprouted and sold for salads.

But why stop there? We could harvest wild seeds in the same way, from sunflowers to wheat grass to giant rye to balsam root to onion to garlic to broccoli to mint, to… well, there’s really no end. I would expect that wild varieties amenable to some gentle propagation in wild areas could fetch a premium price and the others, amenable to rogue planting in otherwise wasted spaces, using otherwise wasted water, could fill out the market.  Land ownership and farming the taste of the land are not identical. Why, we could build a cuisine around the taste of the land, without depleting it.

Beats the kind of desert we see here:

A Desert By Any Other Name

The abandoned orchard below these hills could easily be socially productive. We can afford to move onto the land. Can we afford not to?

We can’t, of course, afford to strip the wild land of its seeds. Increasing the seed-bearing potential of the land, however, and harvesting the excess, seems a lot easier than forking out the $150,000 per acre that agricultural land costs today. Great reason for a hike, too. At the moment, our notions of private land may be awfully beautiful and romantic:

Peach Orchard, Close Up

The Canadian version of castle ruins or step pyramids.

Why not search for a new romantic? One that has more than just views from the land to the water but works with the water in the land? That seems a lot more green than, um, cough cough, this …

This is How We’re Going to Save the Planet?


…and a lot more respectful of our agricultural  heritage than, um, well, Kelowna, really …

Apple-Printed Plastic Shrink-Wrapped Around Electrical Boxes Next to Decorative Shrubs

Yeah, that’ll do it.

An Unexpected World

Although the British Columbia Interior is often described as a series of mountain ranges, separated by deep valleys, it’s more accurately an almost continuous plateau, cut by deep fault lines and glacial channels. Snow is half a year up on the plateau surface. The valleys are deep cracks in it, with specialized climates both freed from and modulated by the snow high up. January is usually seen as snow season, a break in the world of plants, sun, growth, and warmth that will be healed by spring. What, though, if it were an independent season in its own right?

Insect Crossing a High Country Ski Trail
And making pretty good time, too. It certainly looks at home here, with places to go and things to do. 

Could it be that spring is not the birth of the living year for this creature, but merely another phase? Insects are pretty good at changing identities like that, as they cycle through various larval, host, nymph, fly and adult phases depending upon the environment they’re interacting with. Then, there’s this:

A Seed Nesting
Intriguingly, it looks a lot like the insect above, in the same environment. 

Could it be that the seeds of our conifer species first plant themselves in water, and only then in land? Could it be that the seed wing is not just for helping it move through the air? There might be something to this, because when the snow melts and begins to flow, the seeds embedded in it have a good chance of landing in a place where water also collects, seed first, wing up stream.

It would be intriguing to measure the difference (if any) in size, growth, and placement between trees seeded in snow pack and then replanted by water and an overburden of needles and moss-shreds, and those seeded on bare ground. Does anyone know? Has anyone studied this? Drop me a line.

Ancient River

A lot of water passed through this country once, on its way to and from somewhere else. As evidence, I present a strip of bedrock at the base of Vernon’s Turtle Mountain.

Volcanic River Rock

And what appear to be newer volcanic flows capping it.

The dividing line for the two areas is around an altitude of 380 metres, approximately 130 metres below the climax level of Glacial Lake Penticton, which drained 10,000 years ago. The lake level, however, rose and fell several times over thousands of years. Here’s another view of what just might be an ancient river shore, perhaps that drained the lake, perhaps that was dry long before the lake came:

Pebbles in a Stream

Bigger than a house.

Ancient rivers in this region, that were filled in by volcanic flows, soon found their original beds. Once our valley glaciers cut through those renewed valleys and reshaped them, the water followed its old beds once more, and …


The shore of this river is clearly visible in this photograph, just above the vertical white seam. The ancient, pre-glacial valley floor is likely many hundreds of metres below, filled in by gravel. So things change, even though they stay the same.

This rock still stops water, however. Water still flows, just more slowly, in smaller volumes, like here:

Tree in a Post-Post Glacial Riverbed

Post-glacial gravels covered much of this river-smoothed rock, too, before they were trucked away for fill.

Rather than thinking of this as a desert, perhaps we should think of it as really wet country in a dry spell. A long dry spell.


I was intrigued last Wednesday by the broken bits of concrete trucked off for highway fill that were reclaimed (a second time!) by a beekeeper to protect his supers from the wind. I presume they were chosen because, being flat, they stayed where they were put. Then I noticed this:

One Round Rock

Holding its own, too! 

In the last few weeks, I have written a lot about water and light, which may seem a departure from the practical social, political, and economic discussions of a valley cut in two by the US-Canadian Border, but I think if we’re going to give ourselves to this land, we’re going to need to see the opportunities that match this environment. Otherwise, we’re just doing this:

Homeless in Paradise

…and leaving when the sun goes down.

Of course, even homeless people know things that people who live in houses don’t. This, for example:

Homeless? Hardly. King of the City, Really

Of course, the hike up the cliff is a bit rough. I bet the summer nights are grand, though

Perhaps “homeless” is the wrong word for people living rough.