Ten years of slowed maintenance on Agassiz drainage ditches has been leading to ever-worsening farming conditions, local farmers said Tuesday.
They say their farmland ditches being identified as critical fish habitat has led to a bureaucratic maze of red tape, and keeps them from cleaning their own ditches to allow for proper water flow — and more importantly, drainage.
It’s an issue they’ve been trying to have addressed for several years now, to no avail. They’ve crowded the local council chamber meetings at times to have their voices heard, written letters upon letters to all levels of government, and attended public meetings regarding critical habitat discussions.
And on Tuesday, they gathered together to rally at DFO offices in Vancouver. (See related story.)
“We went down there because for the last 10 years, they’ve not been letting farmers drain ditches,” said Agassiz farmer John Wouda. “We want to have the right to do that on our own land.”
Wouda’s property doesn’t have a substantial amount of ditching, but he has a low swale area that collects water. And when the ditches aren’t doing their job, his property pays the price, too.
“Especially when we have the monsoons in the fall,” he said.
Wouda and several other farmers spoke with The Observer as they stepped off a charter bus on Tuesday, after their return from Vancouver.
They demonstrated as a way to get their voices heard. Mostly, they’d like to see the word “habitat” removed from DFO regulations.
“We’ve got a few local environmentalists trying to save a few fish and a few frogs,” he said. “And that’s great in natural lakes and natural rivers, but not when they’re trying to do that on our drainage ditches. We’re losing crops.”
While marshy and fully-flooded fields are shortening the farming season in Agassiz, it’s not just a farming issue.
The farmers claim that some homeowners are experiencing flooding in their basements from the lack of proper water flow. But they say those people don’t want to speak up publicly, as flooding and moldy homes don’t sell very well.
A series of public consultation meetings have been held by DFO over the past few years in Harrison Hot Springs and Chilliwack, and those have been well-attended by farmers, home owners, environmentalists and politicians.
But the farmers underlined on Tuesday that those meetings haven’t been two-way discussions.
“Fisheries never included our concerns,” cranberry farmer Bob Desrosiers said. “They don’t care about our issues.”
Ted Westlin has been a longtime advocate for the farmers, and was part of the demonstration.
“It is frustrating,” Westlin said, that those in charge of decision making aren’t taking the time to really hear the farmers’ concerns. As many in Agassiz would know, Westlin is an area historian and extremely knowledgeable regarding weather patterns, flooding patterns and maintenance policies. He was also a local school teacher, and a member of Kent council in the past, and has binders upon binders of information — and patience — available for anyone who asks.
On the way back to Agassiz aboard the bus, Westlin wrote out some thoughts on the day for The Observer.
“Under present regulations, drainage maintenance can be classified as harmful alteration,” he wrote. He fears that “overzealous” application of regulations will result in a complete loss of agriculture in the area.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans was scheduled to make an announcement regarding the modernization of the Fisheries Act on Thursday, after press time.