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Spring drought has farmers irrigating, fire watchers on alert

For the first time in years, Rob Galey has had to water his corn and pumpkin crops immediately after seeding. “The seeds will not germinate because the ground is so dry,” says the Saanich farmer.
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Michell’s Farm worker Mauricio Sanchez picks zucchinis on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

For the first time in years, Rob Galey has had to water his corn and pumpkin crops immediately after seeding.

“The seeds will not germinate because the ground is so dry,” says the Saanich farmer. “This is very rare, but we just don’t have the moisture this year.”

Farmers all along the east coast of Vancouver Island have turned on irrigation systems, while wildfire watchers are concerned amid a record spring drought that’s spread across the southern portion of the province.

Environment Canada said the period between March 1 and May 31 was “extraordinarily dry,” with only a fraction of normal rainfall in several areas where key agricultural crops are produced and in forests where spring rains are needed to dampen fire dangers.

Nanaimo has recorded just 75 millimetres of rain over the three months, compared with an average of 231 mm— for the fourth driest spring since records started in 1893.

The Victoria airport weather station has seen just 53 mm of rain since March 1, a third of the normal 154 mm, setting a new dry mark since records began in 1940. Gonzales station has had more rainfall — 83 mm this spring — but still well below the usual 112 mm.

Campbell River is 50% below normal for rainfall and had its sixth driest spring on record, said Environment Canada spokesman Doug Lundquist. The trend has extended across the province, with record dry spells in Abbotsford, Kelowna and Vernon, where spring rain is at a 115-year low.

The lack of rainfall during the crucial spring period and a forecast of above-normal temperatures in the summer make for a potentially dangerous wildfire season, said Lundquist.

“It worries me because the spring rain hasn’t materialized,” he said in an interview. “It’s a huge concern for fire weather.”

Coastal Fire Centre spokeswoman Dorthe Jakobsen said there have been 57 wildfires since April 1, more than double the total from last year and above the 10-year average of 30. All have been small blazes and believed to be human-caused, covering less than 70 hectares.

She said June precipitation is essential to keep the forest and its fuels moist and humidity up.

“June always makes or breaks the fire season for us … it’s a critical month,” said Jakobsen. “If we get lots of rain in June, it sets us up to get through July and August fairly well.”

The fire centre has not issued any campfire or open-fire bans as yet, but is watching areas closely, said Jakobsen.

“It can take just a few days of sun and heat to change that,” she said.

The immediate forecast for the coast fire region is a low system building off the west coast of the Island that will bring scattered showers into next week.

Terry Michell, whose family grows berries and vegetables in a sprawling valley on the Saanich Peninsula, has been tapping into irrigation ponds and wells since late March.

He said cooler temperatures have slowed some crops, but strawberries, lettuce, zucchini, kale, beets, onions and leeks are being harvested by workers.

“We’ve used a lot of water to get the crops going,” Michell said. “Some are behind a little because it’s been cool. The workers like it because it’s not so hot or wet.”

Galey said big investments over the years in drip irrigation and plastic crop coverings are paying off this year as the drought continues.

Drip irrigation systems deliver a constant supply of moisture to plants, while plastic coverings keep moisture from evaporating and weeds from spreading.

“We’ve been able to reduce our water by 80 to 90%, so we don’t use a lot of it,” said Galey, whose land is on municipal water supplies and spread over Saanich.

Strawberries are the main cash crop at the moment, with farmers selling the sweet red berries at farm gates and wholesaling to local grocery stores.

Galey has more than a half a million plants producing or ready to be planted, staggering the production from May through to October.

He said conditions are perfect for the berries. “Strawberries don’t like it too hot,” he said. “They like it 20 C.”

Big-acre farmers like Michell and Galey are also welcoming back temporary workers from Mexico. Galey will have 20 this year and Michell 16.

The workers are quarantined in Vancouver hotels for two weeks and given vaccines, with those costs picked up by the province. The farmers pay for chartered airfare, which has more than doubled compared to last year to between $1,000 and $1,200 per worker.

Galey said airfares have risen because the chartered planes are going back empty and farmers are picking up those costs.

Meanwhile, the Capital Regional District said the Sooke Lake reservoir — the region’s main source of water — was at 91.5% per cent of capacity. The Goldstream reservoir was at 87.6%.

“There are no concerns with water supply heading into summer season as the Sooke Lake Reservoir is at a typical seasonal level, and water restrictions are expected to remain at Stage 1 until the end of September,” a CRD spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The CRD started its Stage 1 watering restrictions on May 1, allowing even addresses lawn watering Wednesdays and Saturdays between 4 and 10 a.m. and 7 to 10 p.m., and odd-numbered addresses lawn watering Thursday and Sundays during the same hours.

dkloster@timescolonist.com