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A corn field is pictured on a farm in Richmond, B.C. in this file photo.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Ranchers and farmers are preparing for a summer of drought-like conditions, a year after hot, dry weather choked off the agricultural sector's water supply and prompted restrictions across British Columbia.

John Anderson, a cattle rancher in Merritt, said much will depend on what happens in the next month.

"We generally get two to three inches of rain in June, and if we don't get that … and the snowpack melts off – as it has this year and last year – then the grass … dries out much quicker and there's no regrowth," Mr. Anderson said.

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Last year, drought conditions across Western Canada played havoc on industries that depend on water, while residential restrictions forced homeowners to leave their lawns to die, and tinder-dry forests fuelled a destructive wildfire season. Already this year, British Columbia has seen one of the busiest starts to its wildfire season in a decade, while the Fort McMurray wildfire in neighbouring Alberta has devastated the community and is still burning.

In British Columbia, the snowpack melt has not been consistent throughout the province. There is a decent snowpack in the Fraser River, but in the Merritt area, much of the snow has already melted – presenting a potential problem for cattle ranchers, Mr. Anderson said.

When access to some rivers was closed due to low water levels last year, ranchers were unable to irrigate and had to buy hay and feed from other areas, only to find that the cost had nearly doubled. Hay went up to $260 a tonne – an increase of at least $100 – as drought conditions affected hay supplies across Western Canada.

Coupled with the cost of cattle dropping roughly 35 per cent, ranchers found themselves paying more and making less.

Mr. Anderson said such droughts are nothing new. "That is the cycle of the cattle business. Many of us have been through a number of droughts in our lifetime."

Access to water is a big challenge for ranchers. He noted that later in the summer, it can also be tougher to access water from rivers because fish populations need to be protected.

In February, the provincial Water Sustainability Act came into effect. The law, passed in 2014, gives the B.C. government more tools to protect fish populations. Former water legislation offered no protection for fish, which could result in die-offs if water flow ran too low.

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The new law has set priorities for water licences in streams. Protecting ecosystems, specifically fish populations, is a top priority. After that, the system prioritizes the oldest water licences, whose holders are authorized to take the amount they need. Access can be suspended for those who hold junior water licences in the event of drought-like conditions and low water levels.

The law allows the province to declare water scarcity in regions, and monitors are now able to set specific figures for water flow during times of scarcity.

"If we know what the critical environmental flow is for fish, we can take that figure and bump it to the front of the priority scheme in terms of water use on a stream," said B.C. water stewardship manager Valerie Cameron.

Ms. Cameron noted that the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources is working on drafting regulations that will allow the government to set water objectives for water quality, water quantity and the protection of aquatic ecosystems, but that won't come into effect for several years.

As for this year, the province is watching conditions closely, but she agreed that June will be a key month. "The provincial government's awareness and preparedness for drought has increased this year, but … we don't have a crystal ball," she said.

For produce farmers, the focus is long-term. The industry is preparing for erratic rain and more frequent droughts from climate change.

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The dry weather is a mixed bag for the fruit industry.

Less rain means less chance of fruit rot during the harvesting season – a boon for growers and wineries. At the same time, many growers are installing double-line drip irrigation systems, which run two water lines down a field to ensure more water gets to the plants. Other farmers are using mulch in an attempt to hold moisture in the soil.

This year, a lack of rain and higher temperatures have meant strawberries have come in a week earlier than expected, which farmers say is abnormal.

Jason Smith, a fourth-generation blueberry farmer and chair of the B.C. Blueberry Council, noted that blueberries should arrive in June, three weeks earlier than usual. The blueberry season, he said, seems to be shifting from June to August, rather than July to October.

"The hope is that next year, we would go back towards more normal conditions, but I think the long-term forecasting for the next 20, 30 years is we are trending towards drier and warmer," Mr. Smith said.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misquoted Jason Smith, the chair of the B.C. Blueberry Council. Mr. Smith said conditions in B.C. are "trending towards drier and warmer," not "trending towards drought."

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