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From a Single Irrigation Ditch

The history of Greater Vernon as a populated, prosperous community flows from a single irrigation ditch.

When the Honourable C.M.(Coutts-Marjorie) Banks, manager of the Coldstream Ranch, had a ditch surveyed in 1892 to irrigate part of the Ranch with Coldstream Creek water, he couldn't know that he was taking the first steps to creating a system which would eventually cover 30,000 acres with 150 miles of pipes pumping fresh water to the taps of tens of thousands of people 110 years later.

It became known as the North Ditch, and was expanded by W.C. Ricardo in later years to include lands further down the valley. Ricardo also developed the Orchard Ditch, King Edward, Abbottfield and the Walker Systems to serve Coldstream lands.

In 1905, Ricardo had the Duteau (Jones) Creek watershed and Lake Aberdeen surveyed, which would lead to the construction of the Grey and South Canals along the north and south sides of the Coldstream Valley. To run the system, the White Valley Power and Irrigation Co. Ltd. was formed in 1907, and in 1909 the system was extended to serve lands to the east of B.X. Creek. The Grey Canal was extended west and north, across the Swan Lake Valley to Goose Lake in 1910 and to the north and south eventually to spill into Okanagan Lake in 1914.

The cost of upgrading and repairing the system became too expensive, so an Improvement District was created under the Water Act, giving birth to the Vernon Irrigation District (V.I.D.) in 1920.

Between 1965 and 1972, the V.I.D. system was modernized with the assistance of the federal/provincial infrastructure program, A.R.D.A. The work included installation of underground pipes, booster pumping stations, intake works and dam renewals at a cost of $7.9 million.

In the late 1980s, concerns regarding long-term quality and the ability of supplies to meet future needs of the region were identified, and a series of engineering studies showed that regional water management would be the wave of the future.

In the late 1990s, the Master Water Plan was commissioned which would eventually lead to the creation of Greater Vernon Water in February 2003, a single regional utility replacing the three local water utilities: Coldstream, N.O.W.A. and Vernon. Greater Vernon Water is overseeing an extensive water quality upgrade. Much of the work, including a water treatment plant and separation of agricultural and drinking water, is expected to be completed over the next six years.

The Flow of History: Last upgrade in 1960s replaced ditches and flumes with underground pipes.

Since the early 1900s, irrigation for the region surrounding Vernon flowed through a ditch and flume system. In May, 1965, trustees and ratepayers of the Vernon Irrigation District voted to replace the old system with underground pipes.

"The biggest problem was that it would cost almost as much to renew the ditch and flume system as it would to put the pipe underground", Cliff Kanester remembers.  He was hired soon after the referendum to manage the construction of the five year project.

Kanester's challenge was to keep the ditch operating over that time, while putting the piping in. The answer was to build the system in phases, starting with the Swan Lake-Bella Vista line in 1966. In the second year, the King Edward line was installed, while on the other side of town, pipes were dug through the swampy Anderson lands. In following years, the main lines were laid, and by the fifth year, 1971, the pipes up to Duteau Creek were in and the system was tested.

Getting each phase to work took time, and tested the patience of the orchardists and residents on V.I.D. water, remembers Brian Harvey, Engineering Manager of V.I.D. from 1961 to 1993.

The problem was that the pipes were laid "dry", meaning that the ditch systems' water could not be poured into the pipes until an entire phase was completed and ready to go on line.

"Cliff and I were out many nights when we'd charge it up and find the thing leaked", Harvey said. "You shut it off, repair it and turn it on again. We were not very popular with people for a while." May 1, 1971 was the deadline.

It was a rush to get it done. We weren't quite ready by the first of May", says Kanester. However, there was no going back, as the above ground system was finally disconnected over the last winter, and irrigation season was about to begin. "We had destroyed the old ditch to the head gates. We had to make it work."

And work it has, for over 40 years. During the construction of the system, a chlorination plant was added at the head-gate and V.I.D. water would become the drinking water for many people living in sub-divisions as the boundaries of Vernon and Coldstream spread into the rural areas.

In 1986, the V.I.D. system included 232 km of pipeline, 60 pressure reducing stations, 28 booster pumping station, six dams, three chlorination stations, reservoirs, intakes and screening works. In 1994, it became NOWA, the North Okanagan Water Authority, and in 2003 it became part of the new regional water utility, Greater Vernon Water.

"We're proud we installed it and we're proud it worked. We're proud it is still working today", says Brian Harvey. "There's no reason it shouldn't go on servicing this area for another 30 to 40 years."