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B.C. regulates groundwater and revamps water management

The British Columbia Minister of the Environment, Mary Polak, has introduced a new Water Sustainability Act. The province expects the law to be brought into effect early in 2015.


The British Columbia Minister of the Environment, Mary Polak, has introduced a new Water Sustainability Act. The province expects the law to be brought into effect early in 2015.

The existing Water Act is over 100 years old, but was amended in 1960 and in 2004 to protect the environment and drinking water.

The new Act introduces wider protections and for the first time regulates the use of groundwater. Until now, B.C. is the only province in Canada that does not govern the use of groundwater (apart from its use by a few high-volume users that fall under the Environmental Assessment Act).

The proposed law will regulate groundwater similar to how surface water is now regulated. Domestic water wells would be exempt from the rules, except in areas where aquifers are vulnerable.

Recognizing that local groups want more control over their watersheds, the new legislation increases the options for delegating some water management activities to agencies outside the provincial government. A new system would allow for “Water Objectives” to be defined for streams, aquifers and areas of land to protect water quality, quantity and aquatic health. Also, Water Sustainability Plans will be developed that will integrate water and land use planning. Each plan and the process used to develop it would be unique to the local area.

The proposed legislation will measure large-scale water use, and water users will need licenses and have to pay annual fees. The terms under which licence holders are required to make “beneficial use of the resource” will be clarified and broadened. Currently, the term “beneficial use” means that water must be used for the purpose indicated in the licence, but engineers have interpreted this broadly. Under the new Act the terminology will be more clearly defined to include requiring that water be conserved.

The legislation also updates well drilling requirements. And it allows for agricultural water reserves in certain areas.

Provision is made for droughts. In such periods the use of water will be regulated to ensure there is enough for human needs. The legislation keeps the Minister’s power under the Fish Protection Act to restrict water extractions temporarily in order to protect critical environments and fish habitats.

Critics say the proposed Act as being too lax and too vague. Under the proposals, water use licenses will be renewable for 30 years, while for hydro-electric stations licenses remain at 40 years.

Critics are also not happy that Minister Polak has postponed the “thorny question” of pricing for water extraction for a further 30-day consultation period. The government wants the pricing only to cover the cost of regulating the resource.

Industry stakeholders such as bottled water producers say that the government won’t be able to come up with a fair price unless it commissions studies to verify what water is available and what amount is being used.

To see the proposed legislation, click here.

http://engage.gov.bc.ca/watersustainabilityact/files/2013/10/WSA_legislative-proposal_web-doc.pdf