Update on the Water Act Modernization Process
BC’s current water act is in need of a major overhaul. In 2008, the BC Government announced Living Water Smart and the Water Act Modernization process. Living Water Smart promised long-needed changes to the Province’s rules for allocating water.
There are four key phases of the Water Act Modernization process. Engagement on Water Act Modernization began with the launch of the Living Water Smart Blog in December 2009. The Ministry of Environment spent much of 2010 engaging with stakeholders, First Nations and the public on Water Act Modernization. The Ministry released a Discussion Paper in February 2010 which outlined opportunities for using, sustaining and managing water resources in a changing environment, and delivered 12 regional workshops during March and April 2010. About 900 submissions were received from a broad range of interests and citizens. These submissions are summarized in the Water Act Modernization Report on Engagement, which was released in September 2010.
Watershed Watch anticipated the public consultation portion of this process with the release of the Statement of Expectations on the Reform of the BC Water Act in December 2009. The statement contains 4 main conditions vital to a modern Water Act for BC:
- Protect stream health and aquatic environments.
- Improve water governance arrangements
- Improve the water allocation system
- Regulate groundwater use
The Statement was endorsed by 29 environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) and formed the basis of our first submission (the Brief on BC Water Act Reform) to the Living Water Smart Blog.
We are now in the midst of Phase 3. The Ministry of Environment reviewed and analysed public input and, in December 2010, the Policy Proposal on British Colombia’s new Water Sustainability Act was released. The policy proposal summarizes the key policies being contemplated for the proposed new Water Sustainability Act. Watershed Watch Salmon Society recently worte a brief with regards the Policy Proposal on British Columbia’s New Water Sustainability Act. This brief has been posted to the blog and is available on our website. In this brief we reviewed the proposals seven policy directions. The proposal put emphasis on water sustainability and recognized that humans are not the only users of water, but that nature itself requires good quality abundant water. However, the Proposal is relatively short, and while it offers some insight into how a new Act will work, it remains unacceptably vague on some key issues, such as water governance.
The deadline for public comment on the proposed policy through the Living Water Smart website has passed, however LWS are still accepting some final thoughts by commenting on the Blog or by sending an email to email@example.com. All feedback from this phase of engagement is available through the Living Water Smart website, www.livingwatersmart.ca.
Policy Direction – Protect Stream Health and Aquatic Environments
The proposed Water Sustainability Act requires that instream flows be considered when water is allocated. This would be extremely weak legal protection, should it be instated. Going forward the Water Sustainability Act needs directly address the importance of instream flow and groundwater protection by setting clear standards rather than guidelines. Furthermore these standards need to apply not only to new water licences but also to the existing 44, 000 current water licenses in BC. A question to MOE is how will the new Act work to improve conditions in those parts of the province where over-allocation has threatened flows? What procedures will be used to amend existing licences in these heavily used watersheds?
Human use and management of freshwater resources has put many biological populations that inhabit flow-regulated environments at serious risk. Overuse of diverted water, or the inappropriate diversion of water from a sensitive ecosystem, is a common problem in British Colombia, and often results in harm to fish and other components of aquatic ecosystems. Conflicting demands on freshwater resources present a perplexing dilemma for managers of streams and rivers: how much can the natural flow regime be altered while still ensuring population persistence in aquatic and riparian communities?
The solution to this dilemma involves identifying the instream flow needs i.e. the quantity, timing, and variability of flow required to maintain desired levels of population biomass and biotic diversity. Monitoring and reporting of actual extraction rates should be required for all major licenses. We agree with LWS that measuring and reporting should be a key part of the Policy Proposal on BC’s new Water Sustainability Act. However water conditions vary considerably around the province. We ask, has the province considered a minimum flow standard to apply to all rivers to save the time and money associated with intensive water use planning processes? Furthermore, are there any plans to phase in over time monitoring and reporting of extraction for all licenses, including licenses held by IPP’s?
Policy Direction – Regulate Groundwater Use
The failure to regulate groundwater has been one of the biggest gaps in BC water governance. The proposed Water Sustainability Act intends to address this problem stating “groundwater extraction and use will be regulated in problem areas and for all large groundwater withdrawals across BC”. However, the focus on large users and chronic problem area creates a risk of addressing problems only after they have occurred, rather than preventing problems from occurring (Reference; Comparison: Proposed Water Sustainability Act v. ENGO Statement of Expectations AND Living Water Smart).
Regulation of ground water is more complex than surface water and requires a level of information and scientific understanding largely lacking in BC at the present time. Management of sensitive streams, riparian habitats, and water resources rely on understanding the interactions between groundwater and surface water. Groundwater upwelling directly affects surface water by sustaining stream base flows, providing stable-temperature habitat, and supplying nutrients and inorganic matter.
Dr. Hinch, a fisheries researcher and professor at the University of British Columbia, recently determined that as water temperatures continue to climb (predictions suggest an increase of between 2 and 4 degrees over the next 60 to 80 years), more and more Fraser River salmon are likely to die before they have a chance to spawn (Reference; Rising temperature in Fraser River affecting Salmon population).
In the face of such predications the importance of groundwater upwelling for providing stable temperature habitats is extremely significant. It is therefore imperative the Water Act Modernization require groundwater licensing in all areas of the province. The province should revisit its plan to regulate only in ‘priority areas’, as referred to in LWS. If any geographical areas are proposed to be exempted from groundwater licensing requirements, the province must justify the exemption through scientifically derived criteria (Reference; Groundwater and healthy salmon streams-it’s all connected).
Future of WAM
Watershed Watch Salmon Society strongly believes one of the top priorities going forward in the new Water Sustainability Act should be; a BC Water Act that will set standards for all BC waters, whether surface, ground or diffuse, in all areas of the province, rural and urban. BC’s water laws need to protect trans-border rivers, lakes, and aquifers.
It is imperative that government maintains the high standard of transparent and meaningful engagement that has been established in the WAM process to date. Public dialogue must continue as the Water Sustainable Act policy proposal is further developed. In particular, a formal commitment to offering an opportunity for public comment on draft legislation will help ensure the process remains credible. This opportunity will build confidence that the Province is indeed committed to a new approach to water management and is transparent in its efforts to ensure the protection of fresh water in British Columbia, now and into the future.
The Act is scheduled to seek Cabinet direction in the spring of 2011. If approved, it will proceed to legislative drafting over the summer and fall and be introduced into the House in the spring of 2012.