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The History of Agriculture in Osoyoos

Today the Okanagan Valley is renowned for its fabulous fruit and wine industry.  Travellers note that the Valley appears as an oasis of greenery amid the desolate desert hills.  However, it was not always this way – before the arrival of irrigation the valley bottom was as inhospitable as the rolling mountains on either side.

The Water Arrives

(from The Ditch, by Julie Cancela, 1986)

The first irrigation in the area consisted of buckets of water dutifully toted from the lake to the backyard gardens of the Haynes and Kruger families.  Kruger at one point used an old dug-out canoe as a water reservoir.  Most of this labour was performed by Chinese employees of the families.

Spillway at Head of Osoyoos LakeIn 1918 soldiers began to return to the B.C. after the war; to their dismay they were welcomed by a crowded workforce and highly populated cities.  The Premier of B.C. at the time, John Oliver, sought to find a solution for the veterans, who he believed should be rewarded for their valiant fighting.  He instituted the Soldiers Land Act, under which he purchased 22,000 acres extending south of McIntyre bluff.  It was hoped to irrigate 8,000 acres of this land – this was to be the Southern Okanagan Lands Project.  The land was then to be sold to veterans who desired land and were given ‘special purchasing privileges’.

Spillway at the Head of Osoyoos Lake, BC Archives

Irrigation to the land was to be provided in the form of a ditch that would run from McIntyre Bluff south to the border at Osoyoos.  The estimated cost ranged from $800,000 to $1,000,000.  The ditch was originally designed without a lining of any sort, but experience with the soil soon revealed that a lining was necessary in order to avoid extensive water loss.  Thus, the ditch was lined with concrete, and measured 18 feet across the top and 5 feet deep.  It was purported to transfer sufficient water to cover every acre ten inches in water each month.

The survey for the ditch was conducted in 1919, and the 25-mile ditch was not completed until 1927.  When finished, it included a concrete diversion dam, 20 miles of concrete ditches, 27 flumes, a wood-stave siphon, and seven spillways, one of which was located at the head of Osoyoos Lake.