Water Act Modernization: Ecosystem vs. Economics

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In 2008, the BC government promised long-needed changes to the Province’s rules for allocating and protecting water, by announcing the Living Water Smart (LWS) program. This was followed in December 2009 by the launch of the Water Act Modernization (WAM) process and the LWS blog. We are currently in the midst of “Phase 3” of this process. The Ministry of Environment reviewed and analysed public input and, in December 2010, released the Policy Proposal on British Columbia’s new Water Sustainability Act. All feedback from this phase of engagement is available on the LWS website (www.livingwatersmart.ca). Final legislative options will soon be presented to government. Government will then decide on the direction of the new law, and the process of drafting legislation will begin. The Water Sustainability Act for BC is expected to be introduced into legislature in 2012.

Causes for concern

The policy proposal lists seven key Policy Directions, including; the protection of stream health and aquatic environments; and the regulation of groundwater use. Strong, enforceable legislation for instream flow and groundwater protection is of critical importance for the protection of our ecosystems.

1) Adequate instream flow

Instream flow is the amount of water needed in a stream to adequately provide for downstream uses occurring within the stream channel. Overuse of diverted water, or the inappropriate diversion of water from sensitive ecosystems, is a common problem in BC and often results in harm to fish and other components of aquatic ecosystems.

The causes of rapid fish declines from dams and diversions are often direct and readily apparent, e.g., drying of streams from water diversions, blockage of salmonid migration by dams, or cold-water releases from dams into once warm-water fish habitats (Osmundson et al., 2002). Thus, the ability to secure instream flow needs becomes inextricably linked to the operation of dams and other hydro operations.

Since 2001, over 70 river diversion projects have been approved or built, and dozens more are well into the permitting process. Such development pressures are intense and are driving much of the concern over sustainable water supplies. For example, Plutonic Power and General Electric have plans for the largest private hydroelectric development in Canadian history at Bute Inlet. Bute Inlet’s major rivers and tributaries are among the most productive watersheds remaining in the world; however, they are also highly vulnerable. Bute Inlet’s ecosystems will be changed forever if the proposed seventeen wilderness rivers are dammed with up to 95% of their flow diverted into 88 km of pipelines, along with developments that include 144 km of industrial roads, 110 bridges, 16 powerhouses, substations, and 443 km of high voltage transmission lines (See: FOBI’s Recommendations for 2011 Endangered Rivers List).

Such developments, which dramatically alter instream flow, could significantly impact populations of resident fish and even Pacific salmon, and therefore indirectly affect other wildlife. Healthy salmon runs are a major food source for numerous animals. For example, it was found that starving bald eagles falling out of the sky on Vancouver Island this spring were associated with a lack of salmon runs in the region (Read more: Times Colonist Article). More recent findings also suggest the health of salmon runs can affect forest ecosystems. When bears, wolves and other animals take salmon carcasses from spawning streams they begin an intricate chain reaction that changes the nature of the surrounding forest, according to new research from Simon Fraser University. (See: Health of salmon run affects ecosystem of forest).

2) Groundwater protection

Alteration of natural flow regimes by river regulation affects fish distribution and assemblage structure, but causative pathways are not always direct and may go un-recognized (Osmundson et al., 2002). This can be the case with excessive groundwater extraction.

Instream flow and groundwater are intrinsically linked. Groundwater exchange directly affects the ecology of surface water by:

  • sustaining stream baseflow and moderating water level fluctuations of groundwater-fed lakes;
  • providing stable-temperature habitats;
  • supplying nutrients and inorganic ions.


Many studies have shown the importance of adequate instream flow and groundwater for the protection of wild salmonid habitats.

Localized areas of groundwater discharge have a stable temperature regime and provide thermal refugia for fish in both winter and summer (Hayashi and Rosenberry, 2002). Behavioural thermoregulation and redd (nest) site selection are site-specific aspects of fish-groundwater interactions and are of particular focus for fisheries biologists (See: Review of Groundwater-Salmon Interactions in British Colombia). For example, temperature sensitive transmitters were used to study behavioural thermoregulation of 19 adult spring Yakima River Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) for four months in freshwater prior to spawning (Berman and Quinn, 1991). It was found that Chinook maintained an average internal temperature 2.5°C below ambient river temperature. The resulting 12-20% decrease in basal metabolic rate translated into extra energy available for spawning. Such studies highlight how groundwater can have an important influence on the spawning behaviour and distribution of some fish.

3) Climate Change

According to the provincial government (http://www.livesmartbc.ca/learn/effects.html) evidence shows our climate has changed dramatically over the past century, affecting both physical and biological systems. Average annual temperatures have warmed by between 0.5-1.7°C in different regions of the province during the 20th century, with current projections indicating that BC could experience a further warming of 0.9-1.8°C by 2080. Parts of British Columbia have been warming at a rate more than twice the global average. Communities within the Okanagan Basin have been experiencing longer summer droughts as weather patterns grow increasingly erratic (Cohen and Kulkarni 2001). An analysis of historical data indicates changes in freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems that are linked to climate. For example, the Fraser River is known to discharge most of its total annual flow earlier in the year and many lakes and rivers previously frozen are now free of ice earlier in the spring. This climate change will affect water, fish, forests, and other natural resources, along with the communities and ecosystems that depend on them.

Assessments have identified some likely impacts in BC. Many areas will experience growing water shortages and increased competition among water uses, including municipalities, irrigation, industry, power generation, fisheries, recreation and aquatic ecosystems. Already stressed fisheries will face further challenges, in particular the highly important Pacific salmon species. A new study has shown increases in summer water temperature have been associated with elevated mortality of adult sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) during river migration. It was found not all sockeye salmon stocks are well equipped to survive the increase in water temperature in the Fraser River that is projected to take place over the next 50 years. Stocks that travel the farthest have evolved to have larger hearts and process oxygen more efficiently which may give these stocks a better chance of adapting to climate change (Eliason et al., 2011).

4) Economic Impacts

Economics will directly affect the Water Sustainability Act and thus indirectly affect all other policy directions. Inadequate resources could result in weaker governance and insufficient protection for our water. Successful management of groundwater use and adequate fish flows is a major undertaking due to the expense and difficulty of mapping aquifers, identifying source water, monitoring water extraction, and understanding and accounting for complex interactions between surface and groundwater. Such difficulties have been observed whilst monitoring the ecological impacts of water abstraction from unregulated streams in the state of New South Wales (NSW), Australia (Chessman et al., 2011). In New South Wales, water is abstracted by thousands of geographically dispersed users who pump intermittently according to temporally varying needs and the limitations imposed by licences and access rules. Detailed, quantitative monitoring methods are too costly for widespread routine application because of the size of the state (801 000 km2) and the large number of streams affected by abstraction (Chessman et al., 2011). However, when problems arise in cases such as this, reactionary solutions can prove too late for easy, inexpensive, or timely remediation. Major societies in the past have faced extended water shortages, often with dire consequences.

To avoid a water crisis in this time of warming climate and rapidly increasing human activity, catchment-scale planning for management and conservation of freshwaters in BC, and in particular rapidly developing dryland areas, is urgently required (Schindler & Donahue, 2006). Decision makers need to maximize efficient use of increasingly scarce freshwaters. The cost of such management will undoubtedly be substantial. The economic value of our ecosystem may be difficult to define, but it will be even more difficult to determine the total cost after even more damage. However, one could say our ecosystem and our water is priceless; thus the cost associated with protecting it, is to an extent, irrelevant.


The BC provincial government has positively responded to public concerns by initiating the process of modernizing the antiquated Water Act. While the WAM process has remained positively transparent to the public, a number of questions remain unanswered with regards to instream and groundwater protection; 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? How much can the natural flow regime be altered while still ensuring population persistence in aquatic and riparian communities? 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? Are there any plans to phase in over time monitoring and reporting of extraction for all licenses, including licenses held by IPP’s? Given the importance of groundwater, have the MOE considered groundwater licensing in all areas of the province?

Adequate protection, in the form of the Water Sustainability Act, for instream flow and groundwater, will undoubtedly use a considerable amount of BC’s resources. This cost could be argued as unrealistic and non-feasible. While it is essential to seek an alternative and lower cost means of protection, the level of protection should not be lowered. If our concerns become a reality, which is highly likely, the cost to conserve and protect our ecosystem will be even greater. Not just economically but ethically. Many species such as the Pacific salmon and the grizzly bear that are infamous to beautiful British Columbia face a very real threat if we do not properly protect our water and our ecosystem. It is imperative the provincial government realizes and understands the implications the Water Act Modernization will have if it fails to adequately protect our environment.

An update of the WAM process can be viewed on Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s (WWSS) website. More information on instream flow, groundwater protection, and current practices is available in the following reports by WWSS:


The deadline for public comment on the LWS website has passed, however LWS are still accepting some final thoughts by commenting on their blog or by sending an email to livingwatersmart@gov.bc.ca. Now is the time to voice your concerns.



Berman, C.H., and T.P. Quinn. 1991. Behavioural thermoregulation and homing by spring Chinook salmon, Oncorhynchus tshawyscha (Walbaum), in the Yakima River. Journal of Fish Biology 39: 301.

Chessman, B. C., Royal, M.J. and M. Muschal. 2011. The challenge of monitoring impacts of water abstraction on macroinvertebrate assemblages in unregulated streams. River Research and Applications 27: 76-86.

Cohen and Kulkarni (eds.) 2001. Water Management and Climate Change in the Okanagan Basin. Environment Canada & University of British Columbia.

Eliason, E.J., Clark, T.D.,  Hague, M.J., Hanson, L.M.,  Gallagher, Z.S., Jeffries, K.M., Gale, M.K., Patterson, D.A., Hinch, S.G., Farrell, A.P., 2011. Differences in Thermal Tolerance Among Sockeye Salmon Populations. Science 332: 109-112.

Hayashi, M and D.O. Rosenberry. 2002. Effects of Groundwater Exchange on the Hydrology and Ecology of Surface Water. Review paper. Ground Water 40: 309-316.

Osmundson, D.B, Ryel, R.J., Lamarra, V.L. and J. Pitlick. 2002. Flow-Sediment-Biota Relations: Implications for River Regulation Effects on Native Fish Abundance. Ecological Applications 12: 1719-1739.

Schindler, D.W. and W. F. Donahue. 2006. An impending water crisis in Canada’s western Prairie Provinces. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Early Edition: 1-7.



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