The term “world class” gets tossed around a lot these days. In the case of BC water law we have the opportunity to make “world class” a reality with the Water Sustainability Act (WSA). But are we?
The Water Sustainability Act (WSA) received Royal Assent on May 29, 2014. It will replace the 1909 Water Act, but the WSA itself is really a container to be filled with regulations that will determine whether British Columbians get world class water law, or whether the opportunity dribbles from our grasp. On February 5, 2015, the first regulations were rolled out; water licence fees and rental rates. Domestic users, ie households on wells, do not have to be licenced. Power producers, ie BC Hydro, pay under other legislation. Water licences are good for 30 years, so licence fees can almost be considered a one-time fee. Once a licence is in hand, users will pay volume-based rates of $0.02 to $2.25 per million litres. The greatest change is that these rates apply to groundwater users, who until now have been unregulated in BC with no requirement to report volume of water used, how it was used, or to pay anything to the province for the resource.
The free ride continues...
During public consultations on the WSA, government published an estimate that 18,000 wells would be subject to the new groundwater licensing and stated that the greatest volume of groundwater is used by municipalities followed by industry and finally agriculture. At first glance it appears that under the new fee structure agricultural users will pay a $250 licence fee. Municipal and most industrial users will pay a $1,000, $5,000 or $10,000 licence fee depending on volume to be used. This writer doesn’t have numbers on how many new licences there will be in each category, or on numbers of industrial users who use sufficient volumes to pay higher licence fees; but for the sake of argument let's say there would be 5,500 that pay a $250 fee, 12,000 that pay the $1,000 fee, 480 who pay a $5,000 fee and 20 who pay a $10,000 fee. That would be nearly $16-million that could have gone to a trust fund, had the government seen fit to start one for water revenues. Such a fund could go towards much needed science such as aquifer and glacier inventories. We know there are shortages and conflicts occurring already in some areas of the province. We are seeing changes in precipitation patterns due to climate change. Where are shortages and conflicts likely to happen 10, 20, 30 years from now and to what degree? To manage the resource properly that science needs to be done. Yet the government chose to waive groundwater licence fees, giving existing groundwater users a year after the WSA comes into effect in 2016 to get their 30 year licence for free.
Why did the province waive groundwater licence fees? Did the they fear that the shock would be too much for industry? The province began the process of modernizing BC water law in 2009. The WSA was passed in early 2014, fees announced February 2015 and it won't come into effect until 2016. Take Nestlé Waters for example since news of their water extraction in Hope, BC helped float the WSA into the Legislature. Is this company that reported global sales in 2013 of over $126-billion dollars robust and nimble enough to manage a one-time $5,000 licence fee with only a few years warning? We suspect they would find a way to struggle on. However, thanks to the province’s generosity, Nestlé can avoid that licence fee and instead will pay only the $2.25 per million litres. For the bottling plant in Hope that will amount to about $600 per year trickling into general revenues.
Don’t blame Nestlé
In a 2013 letter to the WSA consultation process John Challinor, Director of Corporate Affairs for Nestlé Waters, wrote “All commercial, municipal and domestic groundwater users should pay a reasonable fee...” and “All water-drawing permit and water-drawing fee pricing should be based on a full cost recovery model that takes into consideration the provinces' mapping over time of the watersheds to calculate total volumetric capacity; an audit of annual draws in each watershed, sub-watershed or aquifer that measures total cumulative annual draws; proper management and enforcement of the regulation; and development, maintenance and replacement costs associated with any common management and/or distribution infrastructure. All monies collected should be used solely to support the management and enforcement of the regulation”
Apparently Nestlé are prepared to pay a fair price to better manage the resource. Other industry comments were similar. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers asked “How will the fees generated from water use be used to enhance understanding of water across the Province or will it just go into government general revenue? How will this be demonstrated?” Tech Resources “British Columbia's largest diversified resource company” concur, stating “We are supportive of a pricing regime that provides revenues for monitoring and research to inform sustainable water management and agree with a pricing regime designed to encourage water conservation.” Municipalities from Abbotsford to Dawson Creek called for water pricing to support water planning, research and monitoring. Comments from academia, NGOs and individuals carried similar messages.
The highest of the new water rates in BC is $2.25 per million litres. For comparison, the highest rate in Canada is $140 per million litres. British Columbians may well be left wondering who their government was listening to when the decisions were made to keep water rates this low and to take a pass on groundwater licence revenues. Also disturbing to those keeping a close eye on these things is that the new rates were announced with no opportunity to comment on them despite continual requests from academic and community organizations for WSA regulations not to be decided behind closed doors. Water is too important for British Columbians to be left out of the process. Many voices led to the WSA going before the Legislature early last year. We need many voices now, as more critical regulations for the WSA are developed, to let the government know we won't let the potential of our new water laws go down the drain.
Get involved at www.waterwealthproject.com/getinvolved
UPDATE: SumOfUs have a petition going on this. Over 90,000 135,000 signatures already!