An image of a hawk soaring over a foggy, forested landscape in Merritt, BC
photograph by grant faint via getty images

Life in the Age of Drought

Our hometown of Merritt, B.C., has been dealing with water restrictions since April. Drought, wildfire and flooding keep us constantly on edge.
BY Leanne Cleaveley

May 28, 2024

In 2000, my husband and I moved from Anahim Lake, B.C., to Merritt to take jobs as teachers in the area. It seemed like a nice place to start a family: Merritt is a tight-knit, 7,000-person community that’s quieter than the lower mainland, more affordable than the coast, and close to beautiful hiking and cross-country ski trails. We also have family nearby, just north of Kamloops. We love it here, but droughts, floods and wildfires put us more on edge every year. 

We’ve lived with water restrictions for more than a decade. They come around every summer. Merritt is in a semi-arid valley, which means it receives only 25 to 50 centimetres of rain per year, or more than ten times less than many of the province’s coastal towns. This year, water is in especially short supply—we rely heavily on snowpack to hydrate the land, but we barely had any snow this winter. That, coupled with summers that get hotter each year, has made the land especially dry. In July of last year, we were under level five restrictions, which prohibited lawn watering, car washing, pool filling and garden sprinkler use. People felt yucky and upset—all lawns were brown, upkeeping a natural garden felt nearly impossible, and we took limited baths and mostly showers. One day last summer, we woke up to wildfire ash on our deck, patio table and chairs. Because hosing was forbidden, I swept the soot and ash, which just made them smear, and we visited a commercial car wash to clear the dust from our car. That was the worst drought I’d experienced.

Usually, at this stage of spring, we are barely entering level one of water restrictions, which limits lawn watering and garden sprinkling to three times per week. But last month, the municipality had already imposed level three restrictions, which means we cannot fill a pool and can only water our yards and gardens twice per week. This is a precautionary measure; the municipality said implementing restrictions this early may mean we won’t have to resort to severe measures later on. So already being at level three restrictions makes me anxious about what this summer will be like.

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It’s not just the drought I fear, but wildfires and flooding, too. In 2021, we were on evacuation alert during the forest fires that destroyed Lytton, a town just 100 kilometres west from Merritt. We had fires west and south of us and smoke so thick that we could no longer see the nearby mountains. Fearing that we would be trapped without an exit route, we left Merritt for a few days and stayed in a hotel in the lower mainland. There’s also the rain, which is rare but intense. Merritt has two rivers flowing across it, so we’re prone to flooding. In 2022, one of the rivers overflowed and flooded many houses and buildings, including my workplace, Merritt Central Elementary School. The library is the lowest part of the school, and we lost about 2,500 books; I spent last year replacing them. Sometimes it feels like there’s no winning—we need rain to water the land, but when it comes, it damages something else. Snow is really what we want, because it absorbs into the ground more slowly and carries less of a flood risk. 

Living with limited water has forced people here to become resourceful. When we moved into our house 24 years ago, the previous owners left behind a rain barrel. We thought, That’s odd. Why would someone need a rain barrel? Now, my husband and I use it regularly, along with four other receptacles around our yard, outfitted from old food storage containers, to capture rainwater. They store hundreds of litres, which we use to water flowers and vegetables. In the summers we also collect water from our gutters, save grey water and dump it on our trees, and put containers under tall planters to collect any water that accumulates at the bottom. We don’t waste a single drop. We also installed a drip irrigation system on our back deck to grow vegetables and bought bales of straw mulch to put around the base of our plants to hold the water in. It’s a lot of upkeep—we barely travel in the summer because it’s hard to ask someone to maintain our watering system once or twice per day.

The dryness and the water restrictions put people on edge. If someone has a green lawn through the summer months, for example, their neighbours might get suspicious and accuse them of using too much water. It’s also difficult to accept water restrictions when we see large industries nearby using lots of water for industrial projects like pipeline construction. It leads to a lot of debate and discontent on our community Facebook page. A recent instance in particular stoked the tension—a resident had forgotten to turn off their water and received a notice from the municipality that further bad actions could lead to suspension of their water altogether. That upset a lot of people; it’s hard to imagine not having your water.

Sometimes, when people from other places learn about the climate in Merritt, they ask us why we stay. The question really should be, “Where would we go?” These climate events threaten many parts of B.C., and I’ve lived in this province my entire life. Merritt is home—we’re raising our two daughters here, have plenty of friends and like the pace of life. We also pay lower taxes compared to those living on the coast, and we wouldn’t be able to own a house on two teacher salaries in the lower mainland. 

Not everyone thinks this way. Merritt’s population is stagnant, perhaps because people don’t know how to make life here sustainable. I think new residents are struggling with the climate and the water restrictions because they don’t have water-collection processes in place. I hope the city adopts more educational measures to help people make it through the summer months, instead of just imposing more sanctions, so we can retain newcomers. Everyone should know the hacks: shutting the water off when you leave the house, collecting grey water when you can and establishing a water-collecting system of gutters. None of this is easy, and knowing that we’re in a drought can be stressful, but Merritt is a great place to live. I’m just hoping for a kinder climate. Until then, it’ll be up to us to adapt.

—As told to Alex Cyr