Season 2 Episode 4 - Arzeena Hamir in the Comox Valley

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In episode 4, host Danielle Paydli speaks to Comox Valley farmer and Vice Chair of the Comox Valley Regional District, Arzeena Hamir. They discuss the importance of access to freshwater for agriculture and the role farmers could play in protecting our watersheds.

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Transcript

Danielle | 0:00  

I'm Danielle Paydli and this is the Freshwater Stream, a podcast about B.C.’s watersheds and the people who care about them. 

Arzeena | 0:08  

We're not managing our resources well in the province of British Columbia. Be it land, be it water, our soils are degrading and without water, there is no farming. There's just nothing you can grow without a stewarding of our water.

Danielle | 0:26  

That was Arzeena Hamir, a farmer, a seller, the Vice Chair of the Comox Valley Regional District and a water champion. Agricultural production is both highly dependent on water and therefore subject to its risks, but it's also the largest using sector and major polluter of water. So, improving agriculture's water management is really essential to a sustainable and productive food growing sector. Arzeena brings her knowledge, expertise and experience to this conversation with me today. Thanks so much for joining us, Arzeena. I would love to start off by hearing a little bit more about you and the beautiful part of our province that you call home.

Arzeena | 1:04  

So my husband and I moved here with our family to the east coast of Vancouver Island in the traditional unceded territory of the Comox people. So, I live just about 10 minutes north of Courtenay, alongside Portuguese Creek, which is a tributary of the Tsolum River. So I'm actually in the Tsolum River watershed. And we're a primarily agricultural region, we have a number of mixed vegetable, cattle, and dairy farms. I grow vegetables because it feeds me both physically, but also just emotionally, spiritually, I get a really deep connection when I have my hands in the soil and my body is moving outside. Plus, I get this amazing connection to my community. When I am at the farmers market every Saturday and I'm handing over vegetables to people I know it's an incredible bond. I mean, there's a trust situation on both sides. The people who buy my produce trust that I am growing it in a certified organic manner, that we put a lot of heart and soul into this. And at the same time, you know, there's a trust that my community will come out and support me when I'm growing my food. So there's all these kinds of connections that come when you're growing food for your community.

Danielle | 2:24  

So how do you see access to and use of freshwater impacting both your livelihood, your career, your family, but also your community as you've been talking about? 

Arzeena | 2:35  

Well, water is essential for vegetable and fruit production. So there's just no way that I could ever grow the types of vegetables that I do grow without accessing some type of water system. Right now we use a combination of water from wells but also from a dugout that we dug into the farm in 2015. That dugout captures winter rains. So it's not connected to any kind of underground spring. But that dugout has really been what has enabled us to grow properly. Because even through wells, we were always worried that our wells would run dry, similar to what our neighbors undergo. So we primarily irrigate out of our dugout. And that's what has enabled us to produce a lot of the greens that I think people have come to know us for. A lot of salad production, kale, chard, all of these types of crops do require a fairly significant amount of water. And without irrigating, we would not be able to grow any of that.

Danielle | 3:43  

Given how closely you work on and with the land within your watershed, I would really like to hear what you feel are some of the threats facing your watershed?

Arzeena | 3:53  

Without water, there is no farming. And I think farmers, they get this, they understand that responsible use of resources is needed and necessary not just for community resilience, but for their own farm resilience, as well. Probably the biggest threat is climate change. We are seeing drier and drier summers, where we can go over/ up to 50-60 days without any type of rainfall, which puts a really big stress onto the water systems that we have. A lot of farmers do depend on their wells and aquifer water to supply their farms. So there's a big stress there, we have more and more people moving into this area. So there's competition for water between just household use and farm use.

Danielle | 4:49  

Whether we're looking at this as like smaller communities or whether we're looking at this on provincial scale, water affects all of us and so we're all really in this together. So what do you see as your role as a farmer and your fellow farmers in making that a reality?

Arzeena | 5:05  

We need to educate our consumers as to how important our water supply is to us. I think a lot of people take for granted, especially if they're on city water, for example, which is a very robust system using Comox Lake. So there's not the issue of pumping, you know, from an aquifer. So if they're not aware of that, you know, it's something that farmers are obliged to do. I think as a farming community, we also have to begin advocating more for the needs of farmers. You know, first and foremost, water needs to be used for human and environmental needs over profit, I don't know if there's any other way to kind of put it other than those very stark realities. Our ecosystem here is incredibly dependent on the water that flows down through the watershed, both humans and our non-human kin — if we're mammals, fish, birds —  we all need a certain amount of water in order to survive. For the most part, farmers haven't been very good at expressing that relationship of how important it is to have all of the ecosystem functioning in a healthy manner. So education, I think, is probably really important, and advocating to our government that we understand that farmers need a certain amount of water, but we also understand that our fish need a certain amount of water and that we're willing to work to ensure that all of these ecosystem services have enough supply.

Danielle | 6:37  

Yes, I think you bring up a really valid piece of the equation and that there can be conflict of who's using water, how much, for what purpose and who has the rights to water — human, aquatic life? So can you share with us a time that you know of where there was a conflict around water and how it was resolved?

Arzeena | 6:57  

We did have a very big water conflict here. We had a community member, a landowner, try to get a license to bottle water from his aquifer, and you know, that really inflamed the community. It's one thing I think, to grow food with aquifer water, but people had no patience for this. So what ended up happening is, I think all of the regional districts up and down the Island, changed their bylaws to disallow water bottling from the aquifer. It's still allowed from surface water, there is a plant south of us in Cumberland. The conflict really arose because the B.C. Ministry — Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, allowed the license and then the Regional District had to step in and be the bad guys and say, ‘No, you cannot have a business license to do this’. So if the applicant hadn't needed to build the water bottling area, he could have just been starting to pump out of the aquifer as soon as he got that license. Probably nobody would have known.

Danielle | 8:01  

Definitely a story of communities stepping up to the challenge to defend their shared waters. So what do you see as some of the bigger picture solutions for your watershed and other watersheds in the province?

Arzeena | 8:14  

Well, I think data is really lacking. There's very little monitoring, and there's very little funding for monitoring. I know Comox First Nation, through their Estuary Program, has been doing a little bit of monitoring of water levels in the Tsolum and in the major tributaries coming into the Tsolum. But we don't have a lot. Similarly, our aquifers on Vancouver Island are almost entirely unmapped. We have a general idea of how big they are. We need more data on that level. And then we need to understand what are the minimums that are required for healthy ecosystems. And then, you know, working together and coming up with a plan. Often it can look like farmers irrigating at different times of the day so that we're not competing with each other in the hottest times of the day. So probably there needs to be some coordination that takes place because that's sorely lacking. Right now, farmers are generally making these decisions on their own, and not in connection with each other or in connecting with the data that we do have.

There's going to be some really hard decisions made. We have a community called Black Creek just north of us. And there's an area of development that relies on water coming out of the Oyster River and the aquifer. And their water is running out. So the Regional District took a really serious look at this and have decided to stop any new water hookups in the area. So if anyone's planning to build a new house or put a suite on, that requires a new water line, they're not going to be granted. So pretty extreme, I would say for this area, we are preventing development from happening, particularly in an area which has been touted as a regional growth node, right? So, it's been really interesting seeing how the community reacts. 

Danielle | 10:15 

Food growers play such a huge role in our communities, nourishing them, being part of like a larger ecosystem. So what do you think the role of farmers is in making a more water secure future a reality for our communities?

Arzeena | 10:30  

One of the things that individual farmers can do to take the pressure off of our aquifers and off of our streams, is to store water on their farms. We've done that on Amara farm by installing a dugout, it's 30 by 40 by 18 feet deep, so it holds over 400,000 gallons of water. So not a huge footprint on our land base, but certainly, it holds far more water than we could have in cisterns or any other type of storage. It did require us to take some land out of production, which I know can be a difficult decision. But it's made such a huge difference on our farm on our ability to continue farming through droughts, but also so that we are not putting that pressure on our aquifer. We don't have any kind of license on stream, so that's not an option for us, but I know quite a few farms that do. And I think as farmers, we need to reconsider where we are getting our water from. Our streams are in such dire need of summer flow that I think pumping from even surface water during summer months shouldn't be considered ecologically sound. We need to be storing all of our own water on farm.

Danielle | 11:40  

What we can do on a local or individual basis is really important. But we also know that bigger picture decisions around management needs to be made. So who are the players that need to be at the table? Should this be on a regional level or provincial level?

Arzeena | 11:55  

I would say on a regional level. It's very hard for farmers to have some of the trust that is necessary in doing work like this, if you're working on a provincial level. I mean, it's really people who live in this community, who know this community, that can help bring people together. And let's not forget that the knowledge that exists on sustainable and even regenerative watershed management really lies within First Nations, the communities that have been here since time became recorded 10,000 years plus. That information and I think that knowledge is there, it's been discounted or ignored or put down, and I think we really need to correct that and center Indigenous knowledge in watershed management.

Danielle  12:45  

I completely agree with the need for local input and decision making, and Indigenous co governance being super essential within watersheds. In our last episode, we envisioned a future if the promised Watershed Security Fund were implemented quickly and done right by the provincial government. How do you feel that would affect your watershed?

Arzeena | 13:05  

Oh, that would be so incredibly helpful. So here's one of the issues that we come up with when we're working in regional districts. If we don't have a taxation, an actual service that we can use to help, you know, pay for staff to do all of this coordinating work, there's no way for us to actually do it unless there's a grant or a fund available from a provincial or federal level of government. So if that was available, provincially that would then lift the burden off of our taxpayers from having to pay for this.

Danielle | 13:39  

You're stepping up as a local councillor and many other local decision makers have done the same with resolutions calling for this Fund, for a ban on groundwater for commercial bottling use and more. But the province doesn't always act on those resolutions. So what does the province of B.C. need to be doing to be a good community member when it comes to our watersheds?

Arzeena | 14:00  

Oh, my gosh, this opens up so many cans of worms really here in the Comox Valley, we were having boil water issues, because of logging in our watershed, you know, on Vancouver Island, all of the watershed is privately owned. The provincial government then doesn't step in and say, ‘Hey, we should manage the watershed better.’ It's like, oh, ‘here's 100 million bucks to build a better water treatment plant’. So it's very much treating the symptoms and not the causes. The causes are the logging practices in the area. The government seems to not want to go there. So it's now been downloaded onto local government who are seeing these issues more critically, and we're trying to deal with them with zero resources. So if there was an ask from local government, it would be: help fund this for us. I mean, we're now going to have to tax our local community in order to be able to manage a watershed like that shouldn't happen we should have funding come down and each community should be able to be funded to manage their drinking water, their aquifers, their watersheds.

Danielle | 15:12  

Thank you so much, Arzeena. I feel so unbelievably fortunate to be able to speak with amazing knowledge holders such as Arzeena and our past guests. I hope that everyone listening feels a little bit more informed and perhaps inspired enough to take action. If you want to get involved visit the CodeBlue BC website where they're easy to use tools for sending an email or making a phone call to decision makers and asking them to defend B.C.’s watersheds. As always, a huge thank you to everyone who contributed to this podcast, with a special shout out to the audio genius of Mr. Brenden MacDonald. And thanks to all of our listeners who helped us become a five-star rated podcast! If you haven't already, please leave a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen, it really helps to grow our community of listeners. If you'd like to contribute to this podcast or to all the great work that's happening to keep watersheds healthy, you can go to FreshwaterAlliance.ca or CodeBlueBC.ca and donate. This has been a Canadian Freshwater Alliance production in collaboration with our partners Watershed Watch Salmon Society. And now we are going to let Arzeena’s neighbors in the Comox Valley take us out by sharing a little love from their watershed.

Community Member #1 | 16:18  

I love my watershed. I live in Courtenay and my watershed is the Millard/Piercy Watershed. I'm a streamkeeper and I love that I live near nature even though I'm in the city and that I can see salmon spawning, almost in my backyard. 

Community Member #2 | 16:32  

I'm so fortunate to live here in the Comox Valley Watershed, that by the Cornish glacier, Comox Lake and all the beautiful rivers that flow into the ocean and Comox Bay and all the beaches we enjoy here. What it means to me is that I live in such a special place, with my family growing up in a small town, where everyone knows each other and everyone sees each other out on the trails and on the beaches, all year long. It's just wonderful