Photo contributed A tractor sprays liquid fertilizer on farm fields.

Column: Hullcar aquifer review good news for Shuswap Lake

By Jim Cooperman

One of the first announcements from the new government in Victoria is that there will be a review of the Hullcar aquifer, which has been contaminated by elevated levels of nitrates likely from agricultural wastes.

A significant goal for the review is to provide recommendations to improve regulations for agricultural practices province-wide in order to better safeguard drinking water quality. This process should assist local efforts to protect Shuswap and Mara Lake water quality.

The situation in nearby Hullcar in the North Okanagan has been grim for sometime now, as the increase in groundwater pollution has coincided with an increase in the size and intensity of the local dairy industry. A drinking water advisory was listed in 2014 for the approximately 80 families who rely on the shallow, unprotected aquifer for their drinking water that is just 1.5 to 14 metres underground. Numerous studies and reports have been made and local dairy farms have received pollution abatement orders.

In the Shuswap, concerns about deteriorating lake water quality has also resulted in numerous studies and the creation of the Shuswap Watershed Council that is tasked with ongoing monitoring, as well as developing solutions. While the concern in Hullcar is primarily with nitrates and in the Shuswap it is with phosphates, both pollutants are likely from the same source – cow manure, which is spread in liquid form from industrial dairy farms. The application of chemical fertilizers also contributes to the problems.

Given that only the provincial government has jurisdiction over agriculture, the Shuswap Watershed Council now has the opportunity to share the information it has collected to date, along with its concerns with the province so that any upcoming improvements to agricultural regulations include measures that will also reduce the amount of phosphate loading into streams and lakes.

One key report that the Hullcar review should study is the 2014 Agricultural Nutrient Management review that explained how many fields are saturated with phosphorus and yet more is added every year. A 2007 provincial and federal government investigation showed that 96 percent of local fields posed a high or very high risk of phosphorus leaching or running off into surface water.

The problems occurring here and in Hullcar are not unique, as pollution from agricultural wastes is a global problem. Much could be gained by reviewing how other jurisdictions are dealing with the issue. Gaining in popularity is the use of bio-gas generators that produce electricity while decreasing the amount of methane gas going into the atmosphere, as it is 72 times worse for the climate than CO2 over 20 years. After the methane is cooked out of the manure, the nutrients remain but the material can then be composted.

Although it is more costly than the use of lagoons and liquid manure spreaders, composting is by far the best solution because it converts the nutrients into non-water soluble salts that soil organisms can consume, which better nurtures the growing crops. Photos of fields in Australia that have been fertilized with composted cow manure show healthy forage crops that are grazed far more often than the depleted neighbouring fields that have been sprayed with effluent.

The rules governing agriculture in B.C. have been too lax for far too long, as evidenced by the polluted groundwater in the Fraser Valley that is beyond remediation. Dairy farmers take advantage of the lack of regulations and crowd farmland with far more cows per hectare than is sustainable. Win-win solutions are possible and the Hullcar review will hopefully lead the way.