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In Deep Water

If anyone knows the value of a drop of water in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, it’s Corinne Jackon, communications director at the Okanagan Basin Water Board. Corinne says the Board has been getting many calls about drought and soaring temperatures recently. 

“There is less water in the Okanagan available per person than anywhere else in Canada. The Okanagan has one of the highest rates of water use per person in Canada. Not something to be proud of. We know that the number one use is agriculture. The second largest is household lawns and gardens,” says Corinne.

Corinne says it is critical to make a difference in our water use for a couple of reasons.

“One, our population growth: we’re one of the fastest-growing regions in Canada. Two, climate change and what that means for water availability. We need to do things differently. We’re not on a sustainable path right now.”

Farmers, especially, have a lot at stake when it comes to water availability in the region. Naramata grape grower Graham O’Rourke has noticed water changes in his years living here. 

“People see that massive lake out there, and they think, ‘oh, we’ve got all we need.’ But if you look at the lake right now, you can see it’s down about two and a half feet. Volumetrically wise, that’s a lot of water.”

Graham rides his tractor mulching up the prunings to put back into the soil. This keeps the soil healthy. All photos courtesy of Tightrope Winery.

He has also noticed that temperatures are becoming more extreme, which worries him.

“This year was a really, really hot year and very dry coming into the season, and we didn’t get anywhere near our normal rainfall. 2012, 2015, 2018 were very much the same. There are different extremes in the climate.”

While the Water Board works with partners to track water supplies throughout the region to ensure there will be enough to go around, residents and business owners are changing how they use water.

“People are beginning to convert their landscapes to be more water-efficient, and that is a good thing. People are planting things that are more appropriate for our climate. Could there be more done? Absolutely,” says Corinne.

Creative solutions are helping farmers use less water. Take grape grower Graham, for example, who uses unique technologies in his vineyards that allow him to water carefully and still make fantastic wine. 

A Great Way to Grow Grapes 

Tightrope Winery has two 10-acre vineyards and uses remarkable heat mapping and plant health monitoring technologies to water purposefully. A heat map is a graphical representation of data where values are depicted by colour. A system of scopes are set up in the soil throughout a farming area, and data is sent from the scopes to the farmer’s computer or phone. A farmer can tell which areas of their crops are stressed, too hot or cold, thirsty or too wet, or hungry for nutrients. 

Lyndsay working on the harvest.

Co-owner of Tightrope Winery and grape grower Graham manages the vines and saves water. He has tracked every drop of water used since he and his partner Lyndsay built the vineyards and winery in 2014.

“I water differently. I target my water as accurately as I can,” says Graham. 

So how does heat mapping technology help him monitor his water use? 

“I see temperature, humidity, and soil moisture at six different depths. It tracks moisture through the year, which is valuable for when to start watering. I can see exactly when I started watering in 2013 compared to 2021. I see how much it rained, and do I need to compensate with an irrigation strategy. In glacial silt soils, it takes a lot of rain to get to 10-20 cm. It takes the guesswork out.”

Graham sees his vineyards from a bird’s eye view. Another way to look at it is that it’s a soil map, he says.

“It shows where there’s healthy soil, and the vines get everything they want. And the areas where the soil is not as nutrient-rich and doesn’t pass nutrients and moisture down to the roots, and the roots don’t have a large area to explore. In those areas, the vines are a lot weaker.” 

Lyndsay hauling the first bin of Pinot Gris.

Graham managed the scorching days this summer using heat mapping and his expertise. 

“In 45 plus degree days, there’s no point in watering; the plants shut down. Over-irrigating during the heat is a common mistake amongst vineyards. You saturate the soil and end up with mildew issues and need to use more insecticide and mildew sprays.”

Heat mapping allows Graham to avoid this situation, which makes him feel more secure. Insecurity is something that is part of farming life. Graham has known this since he worked during the summers as a teenager on corn, soy, and tobacco farms in southwestern Ontario. 

Before opening Tightrope, Graham worked for six years at Mission Hill Winery. There, he used heat mapping to monitor vines, soil health, and water content. 

Tightrope Winery in the Okanagan Valley.

“I was immediately able to see the benefits,” says Graham. 

He experienced the difference that heat mapping made at Mission Hill, so when he and Lyndsay built their vineyards, they installed mapping technology. The system they installed is called a ranch system and is more affordable than the massive system used at Mission Hill. 

Save Water, Drink Wine

Graham believes that other vineyard owners could do more to reduce their water use. 

“We could be more accurate with our water in these drought scenarios so that we don’t run out.” 

He hopes other vineyards will follow Tightrope’s lead.

“I know I’m using a lot less water than the orchards and my neighbouring vineyards, who I see water all the time. I’m accurately applying my water.” 

 If all wineries and orchards and other agricultural users had a flow meter, this could make a huge difference. Every Okanagan water user should monitor their water use, says Graham. 

“Every irrigation system should have a flow meter, and they should be checking it regularly to stop overusing. The Grape Growers Association here in BC runs irrigation workshops to help growers target their irrigation use. The wine is better for it.”

He hopes his industry can stand up to the task. Sustainable Winegrowing BC is a collective that supports wineries to operate in a more sustainable manner through educational resources, training and certification. Wine drinkers can look for Sustainable Winegrowing BC certified wines in the wine shop, and support wineries doing the important work of using less water.

“At the end of a day,” says Graham, “we’d be making better wine as a whole industry if there was more understanding of the technology and more utilization. Heat mapping helps growers see their vineyards on different levels.”