Farmers won’t be getting any break from Metro Vancouver on the cost of water to irrigate their crops.
The regional district board voted Friday to shoot down the idea of a reduced price for agricultural water consumption, at least for now.
Metro directors say it’s not justifiable to provide Metro water – most of which is now filtered and treated at great cost – at a discount rate to farmers.
“I think it’s a bit of a slippery slope to isolate the water issue,” Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner said at a debate on the issue at Metro’s regional planning and agriculture committee.
The region receives regular requests for preferential rates for agriculture, and supporting food security is one of the region’s sustainability goals.
The request for special treatment came from Metro’s Agriculture Advisory Committee.
How water rates are charged in the region is technically up to individual cities, but a blanket decision by the region to confer lower rates for farm purposes would flow through to farmers.
Delta is the only city in the region that already opts to subsidize farmers’ irrigation, offering a 38 per cent discount within its agricultural zone on the first 8,000 cubic metres of water used.
Matching Delta’s discounts would cost Metro an estimated $550,000 in annual subsidies, according to a staff report.
The report said potable water costs represent less than 0.5 per cent of the overall cost of farming in the region, so even a large subsidy would have only a minor impact on the viability of local agriculture.
It did note the subsidy could be significant for food processors on farmland who use lots of water to wash produce, however.
The report warned other water-intensive businesses might demand similar treatment.
Water pricing is legally required to be fair and equitable, so any attempt to subsidize agriculture through regional water rates would require legislative change through the province.
The cost of Metro’s treated drinking water has risen sharply in recent years because of the addition of the $800-million Seymour-Capilano Filtration Plant.
Alternative sources of water for irrigation are either oversubscribed or problematic.
The drawdown of well water for farming is unsustainable, the report noted, while Fraser River water closest to the ocean is often too salty and stream and ditch water is often too contaminated.
Metro plans to work further with the province’s agriculture ministry to search for other methods of delivering usable water for farming.
One option would be to divert some water from the Fraser into the Serpentine and Nicomekl River systems to serve farms in the Surrey area, although the costs of such a system are unclear, as well as potential environmental risks from inter-basin transfers.
Richmond Coun. Harold Steves warned Metro may regret failing to tackle the issue seriously enough.
“This is a ticking time bomb,” he said, calling the increasing use of pumped water from ditches and wells a potentially serious health risk.
“It scares the heck out of me,” he said. “It’s going to take one e.coli scare and it will be on the table as ‘Why didn’t you do something?'”