The Ethics of Water in the Okanagan

For the last week, I’ve been displaying new crops for the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia and the Okanogan Valley in Washington. These crops will allow food production to continue in the face of drought caused by the various forms of desertification, including global warming, industrial water systems, human subdivision development and land use decisions, and technological agricultural methods. So far, I’ve identified 20 possible fruit crops and 30 possible vegetable crops, most capable of producing food and wealth without any drain on the living water systems of the valley.


19th Century Water Technology

Similkameen River, Shanker’s Bend, Washington

Before moving on to other exciting new crops, I’d like to step aside for a moment and talk about water, desertification, new water technologies based upon plant physiology, and new forms of and locations for agriculture. This a social and ethical discussion, that touches on art, social sculpture, food, and earth. It cropped up so many times in the discussion of the previous crops, that I felt it would be best to remember that the crops are part of the discussion of water, not the other way around.

P1070188Western Swallowtail on Wild Mock Orange

It is possible to farm and have a living earth, too. It’s not a choice. In fact, if anyone asks you to choose, they do not understand water, or earth.

In my explorations here over the last 18 months, I have discovered to my surprise and wonder that farming actually farms water, not earth. Even the soil, which physically supports crops, is really a community of microbes, providing complex underground atmospheres and nutrient transfers as complex as photosynthesis. The air that passes over a tree and the clouds above it, are also present around its roots, in a mirrored form. Storms pass through the earth as much as they do through the sky, and clouds drift there, lazily, and it rains there, and the soil breathes. The soil is a living thing.


Fire-burnt Choke Cherry Tree

Breathing in through its roots and out through its leaves. Breathing in through its leaves and out through its roots.

It is life that we farm, not the dead earth that blooms upon. Anyone who farms that, is farming petrochemicals, and producing petrochemical food. That’s not sustainable. That is 19th century technology. It’s on par with 19th Century medicine — a good beginning but the patient has a good chance of dying.


Abandoned Garden Shed

Improvements aren’t always improvements. More money was invested in this garden shed than was ever invested in the yard surrounding it. Now that a generation has passed, the new owners have no interest in the yard at all. The presence of this garden shed adds to the value of this land, although it has no accompanying garden. Ironically, the absence of a garden improves the value of the land as well. Something went wrong here. 

Once we’ve explored the stories of water, we can talk about herbs and other crops, where they might be grown, and how they might change the social stories of our urban environments. Farming is a form of sculpture. So, here we go!

1. Water

Water is more than a molecule of two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms. It’s the basis of life.


Life, Lost on the Sidewalk

1 minute into an afternoon storm that caught me unawares.

Since water is life, to humans, such as you or I, who are social animals, water is a form of social space. To put that into perspective, here’s a less social animal, with whom I share these grassland hills …

bullBullsnake Cooling Itself off on a Vineyard Driveway

The snake is unaware of the social claim laid on the driveway by men and their tractors, and the peril that he is in, because he’s not social. To him, the driveway is the earth, and his self. It’s up to humans to regulate their social space. In this case, I drove the bullsnake into the grass before the tractor came.

2. Where water comes from.

Here, just inland from the North Pacific Ocean, water comes from the open water between Japan and Vancouver Island. It fills the air, breaks in a wave on the arc of volcanoes along the Pacific shore, spills over them, and breaks again on the mountains on the true North American shore, five hundred kilometres to the East. That water comes in the form of rain and snow. The snow is able to store water, and release it slowly through the environment, in a descent from the high country, down to the lowland lakes and rivers. Living water systems on the hills do the same work.


Snow Blooming in a Grassland Gully

Water exists in time.

3. Heat and Drought.

This is how dryness starts…


Rain Forest and Dreamtime Island, Broughton Archipelago

The earth revolves from west to east. The wet winds that blow off of the Pacific are this motion. They collide with the mountains on the North Pacific shore, and instead of stopping are pushed on by the balance of energies between earth and the sun. As the winds are pushed upwards, up the slopes of the mountains, they lose pressure and drop water, are pushed up farther, lose more pressure, and drop more water, and so on, until they crest the peaks, depressurized and stripped of water. They do not stop there, though. The spinning earth pushes them on, down the other side, where they repressurize. Stripped of water, they are warm now, and warmer the farther they sink into the valleys of the plateau, and the warmer and dryer they get, the more water they pull out of the air, out of living things, and out of the soil. The winds might even be wet, but they still draw water out of the earth. At the floor of the valleys, the air can draw 11 times more water out of the soil than falls as precipitation. The dry land to the east and the rainforest to the west are one: mirror images of each other than combine to form a living whole. It is not that the air of the Okanagan is particularly dry, but that it absorbs any water that is not quickly whisked away underground or into chains of life. Freestanding water, or water that can easily become so, will vanish into the rainforest deficit. The effect is a little like this:


The Big Bar Eskers

Cariboo Plateau

It’s not actually dry and hot here. It’s just that the air is turned inside out.

4. Water and Reverse Atmospheres

It’s doing anything it does up top, but it’s also being passed along through chains of life. Let me show you a couple diagrams as illustrations. First, a standard model of water flow in the Okanagan:


Blue Water System for the Okanagan, Government of Canada Source

This system is good at describing water as an element, and tracing its free flow. It is dependent on keeping surface water clean, capturing it, using it, returning it to the ground for the filtration, and letting the sun draw it out of the open lakes and return it to the hills in the form of rain. When put in place, it looks like this:

1280px-Vineyards_and_Lake-_Osoyoos_in_the_Okanagan_ValleyOsoyoos Lake

However, take another look:

1280px-Vineyards_and_Lake-_Osoyoos_in_the_Okanagan_Valley-1 Annotated Osoyoos Lake

The Orange rectangle is Hurley Peak, Washington. The mountain directs the Similkameen River towards its union with the Okanogan River a few miles south of this lake. The mountains that feed the Canadian Okanagan, including Osoyoos Lake, lie to the North, but are at the same altitude as Hurley Peak, and carry snow into the early summer. Slowly it is released downward, through the chain of life that covers the valley, until it reaches the lakes, from which it flows down to the Columbia River at Brewster, Washington. To see how much this pattern differs from the official government pattern, and how much more life (and less elemental water) is in it, consider the yellow rectangle.


Kobau Mountain Above Osoyoos

At high altitudes, the air is less pressurized than it is in town on the lakeshore. Accordingly, it can support trees, with their high water requirements. As the pressure increases deeper in the valley, trees die out and grassland plants thrive, which are able to balance the pressure of the atmosphere at these new water-deficit depths. In the natural system, the water flowing down from above would generate cloud, that would rain and invigorate these systems, fill the gullies running through them with life, and carry this energy down to the wetlands on the lake shore and the lake itself. Animals living in the environment would be sustained over time, by the differing seasons caused by altitude and its mirror, the particular stages and forms of plant life responding to time and depth. That is prime agricultural space. All it requires is appropriate plants, rather than the European plants currently planted in the valley bottom, in the 19th century colonial model. The water is there, but only for plants that can withhold it from the air, and especially if the system is complete and water is allowed to flow down through the hills rather than over them.

5. Desertification

There are many ways to make a desert. One is with words. Another is with mythology. In the Okanagan, the colonial mythology is rooted in the Manifest Destiny of the United States of America and a near-Biblical drive for Eden. In the 19th Century model, water was removed from the Syilx natural system described above and pumped over the so-called desert, to make it bloom. You see farms like that there in the valley bottom. The only thing is, they missed this:


Ravine at the Foot of Anarchist Mountain

Water that flows underground, through life systems, shaded and protected from the sun, brings high country productivity and crops right into the high-pressure, low-water zone — much like the industrial water systems that supply the gardens of Eden have done, releasing it to the surface, where it is most vulnerable. Over half of the water (over half of the life) in the valley vanishes into the air due to this exposure. Yes, it looks green down there, but not only is all that expensive technology not necessary, but it represents only half of the life that would be present if it were not there. There’s more, too: it also prejudices thought, into thinking that the valley is a desert. It isn’t. It has one desert, yes, the only desert in Canada, yup, and it is contained in the red rectangle you see below:


The Pocket Desert of N’kmip

1/2 an acre of desert. That’s it. The green rectangle behind it is Black Sage and N’kmip vineyard areas, the Cabernet and Merlot and Pinot Noir plots of the Okanagan, evaporating water into the air in order to mine the heat created by the valley depths.

6. The Ethics of Water

Essentially, whose water is it? Let me take a stab at that: it belongs to the planet. In their native environments, humans actually have low water requirements. We don’t need a lot. Every tree needs hundreds of times as much. It also produces far more, or can, with human guidance. In other words, water is life. Our job as living creatures on the planet is to transform that water into life. The trees do, as do all plants. It means, if we care for them, we create life, too. Well, almost. First, the tree, hard at using its high water requirements to produce an abundance of life …


Honeybee among the Male Staghorn Sumac Flowers

… and then, thousands of times more water poured onto neighbouring soil …


Unharvested Vineyard (Due to Bad Crop Practices)

… to produce ice wine, or, in this case, a small amount of bird food. The rest of the grapes were pruned off, to concentrate elite flavours in the wine, for ice wine production. That’s where ethics comes in, and one place in which the social relationship of humans in the community of living things translates into the social relationships of humans among teach other. To take water out of the living system, to concentrate it in order to grow foreign crops for the benefit of one man rather than thousands of individuals in hundreds of species, can, perhaps, be a legitimate choice. One does get hungry. However, using what is the common resource of all mean and women and children in the valley to produce ice wine or low yielding high value wines for export only, which very few people here could ever afford to purchase or consume, for the profit of a few is not only unethical but unsustainable. The water is a common good. There isn’t enough of it to afford to transform it into industrial or economic products, or even agricultural products that waste it.  Water rates should be set at the use of the water for the common good. The cost of lost life due to water being squandered in deep valley environments is one of the costs of water, should be added to the cost of water use, and used to support alternative forms of agricultural production. The land can produce a vast amount of food and wealth for all, or for a very few. A choice like that should be very clear.

P1070168The Saskatoons are Almost Ripe at the 500 Metre Line!

Water no longer flows from the heights to the depths, creating wetlands and trails of life moving up and down the slopes with the seasons … but it would be a lot cheaper to replicate and repair that system than it would be to build huge new water infrastructure systems at crippling rates of taxation, while continuing to support agricultural practices at the expense of the many and the profit of the few.

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