Where we are with it, how we got here, and why it matters in the real world.
Work at WaterWealth sometimes feels like canoeing big waves. A storm somewhere creates the conditions, there is a period of intense activity as a wave hits, and then (we hope!) a bit of calm after, until the next one. So it goes with the issue of water rental rates under the Water Sustainability Act (WSA).
The rental rates are a big deal. With the province choosing a cost-recovery model for the WSA, getting those rental rates right is critical to putting wind in the sails of BC’s new water law. It’s the difference between an ineffective piece of paper in Victoria or the kind of planning and management that can secure water for the needs of our children and our children’s children. A budget for more than just handing out licences.
The first wave...
The province recognized the importance of getting the water rates right, and in what became the first wave of activity for WaterWealth specifically on the issue of pricing, the province held a public consultation in early 2014. The government published a discussion paper that outlined seven principles, among them a principle of cost recovery.
Reading that cost recovery principle we were encouraged that the province had a clear understanding of the work ahead to wring the full potential out of the WSA. WaterWealth went to work raising public awareness and supporting public comment on the pricing issue. A significant portion of the public participation in the pricing consultation was generated by WaterWealth’s efforts and an online tool created for us by Wayne Froese under his Community reVISION banner. We thought we had weathered that wave well, even receiving a call of thanks from provincial staff.
A multi-million dollar giveaway...
The second pricing wave struck when the prices were announced in February 2015.
After the optimism of the pricing consultation those prices were a shock. Across some 80 categories of water use in the province, rental rates ranged from 2¢ to $2.25 per thousand cubic metres (one million litres). Not only were the rental rates shockingly low compared to the need in the province, but the government had decided to waive licence fees for the approximately 20,000 existing non-domestic groundwater users who will enter the water licensing system when the WSA comes into effect in 2016. A multi-million dollar giveaway of water licences just at the time when funding is most needed to implement the new law.
Of course media wanted a response to the rates the province had announced. Half hoping that our analysis would prove wrong, we began putting out word that the rates the province had set were inadequate and disappointing on several fronts. The call began for the province to review the rates and to show British Columbians how they intended to fully fund the WSA. Our analysis was soon confirmed, as analyses by water policy experts such as the POLIS Water Sustainability Project at the University of Victoria began to filter out to the public.
We passed the crest of that wave by the end of March, media appetite on the subject seeming sated, and we settled into working on the issue as one of many in the day-to-day through June and into July. The Environment Minister, Mary Polak, stuck to the messages she had started with when announcement of the water rates met with widespread criticism, that the province was not in the business of selling or profiting from water (something that no one but the government ever said anything about). Chilliwack-Hope MLA Laurie Throness was quoted in media saying that raising the rates was “not in the cards” and that to ask Nestlé “to take a large reduction in water right now really cuts into their business”; as if Nestlé could not afford more than the $596.25 per year they would pay under the announced prices; as if Nestlé themselves had not advised the province in their WSA submissions to charge a fair rate; and as if the issue were only about Nestlé in any case.
We thought we were in for a long campaign on the water rates.
Then July 11 a rogue wave hit in the form of a Facebook post by former Liberal MLA Judi Tyabji. Despite clear errors such as the statement that "Currently, Nestle pays the same fees that everyone else pays for access to water", Tyabji's post succeeded in raising fears, that were the province to raise the rates paid by non-domestic water users some mysterious trade agreement mechanism would somehow change the nature of the water rates and lock us in to selling unlimited volumes of water out of the province; ”we can NEVER turn off the taps due to the international trade deals in place” Tyabji warned.
The post asked people to share, and share they did, over 19,000 times! This was the biggest wave of water rate work yet, as SumOfUs and WaterWealth sought to counter misinformation on social media, blogs and news websites, all the while fielding media interviews in print, on radio and TV. The debate even got a little nasty on a live CBC BC Almanac show wherein Tyabji inexplicably referred to WaterWealth Campaign Director Ian Stephen as “the stalker”. It also got a little scary on an interview on CBC's The 180 when Tyabji talked of renegotiating trade deals so as to be able to talk to the United States “about maybe giving you some access [to BC water] where we can benefit financially."
Legal and policy experts concurred with WaterWealth’s argument on the trade deal fears. West Coast Environmental Law’s Andrew Gage, University of Victoria law professor Deborah Curran (also on the BC Almanac show, from 29 minutes in), POLIS Project on Ecological Governance Co-Director and Water Sustainability Project Lead Oliver Brandes (with Curran), and more recently Martin Olszynski, of University of Calgary Law made clear that trade deal fears really were a non-issue. However, the media attention brought by Tyabji’s Facebook post boosted awareness of and numbers on the pricing petition SumOfUs.org and WaterWealth had been partnering on. The petition reached over 225,000 signatures, the largest petition ever by SumOfUs in Canada! With petition delivery planned for July 15th and the issue under the greatest public scrutiny it had seen yet, the Premier announced July 13th that the Environment Ministry would review the water rates. SumOfUs had to make red stickers for the billboard that had been printed for the petition delivery!
WaterWealth had weathered another big wave, and we take this with cautious optimism as a win for BC. It remains to be seen whether the review is comprehensive and transparent. The government must show British Columbians how they will live up to the commitment to fully implement the Water Sustainability Act.
Why does it matter in the real world?
What is sometimes lost in the back and forth over minutiae of water policy and in the sound-bite culture of modern media is what it’s really all about. The petition called on the province to review the rates, but what does that mean outside of the Water Sustainability Act? Why does it matter in the real world?
I tried to answer that in the BC Almanac show, using my own experience the evening before the show as an example. I had spent that evening on the Vedder River (see sidebar), an important river to the local economy for recreation and tourism. Five species of salmon and several species of trout are found there. It has been said that the Vedder has more rod hours than any other river in all of North America.
Also on the Vedder are four water licences. One licence as a water source for the community of Yarrow. Two licences for irrigation that go back to the 1960s. One newer licence is held by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The City of Chilliwack also gets a large portion of its drinking water from the Vedder River, the Vedder being a significant source of the water that refreshes the Sardis/Vedder aquifer that Chilliwack relies on. No water licence there yet, groundwater remaining unregulated until the WSA comes into effect in 2016. In fact one of the shortcomings of the existing water law is that if a surface water licence is refused by the province, the applicant can drop a well next to the surface water source and draw water from below it, no provincial permission or reporting required.
The name of the river changes several times between its source high in the mountains and its mouth at the Fraser River. Above the Vedder section, along the section known as the Chilliwack River, are popular areas for white water rafting and competitive kayaking. There are also places of historic, cultural and spiritual importance to the Stó:lō along the Chilliwack river and its tributaries. Continuing past Chilliwack Lake to the Upper Chilliwack River and into the mountains beyond, one finds the ultimate source of much of the Chilliwack/Vedder water: glaciers in North Cascades National Park, across the border in the United States. We know glaciers in the Pacific Northwest have been receding for decades. What is the state of the glaciers that feed this river? WaterWealth has asked that question of local, regional and provincial government. The answer is: We don’t know.
The Water Sustainability Act has provisions for environmental flows. On the Chilliwack/Vedder River, a river on which so much of the local economy directly depends, which so many people enjoy for recreation, and which is relied on by so many for drinking water and other domestic and business use, what are the environmental flow levels? And when, like that night as I floated on the current, the river is extremely low and the water temperature is 19.5 C, dangerously warm for spawning salmon (chinook likely spawning that time of year), how do these conditions affect environmental flow levels and other uses of water from that river? If human use must be reduced to leave more water in the river to protect natural, fisheries, and tourism values, where and how do we reduce?
There are many and sometimes-competing interests and values connected to the Chilliwack/Vedder River. There are many questions to be answered there. The same is true of waterways and water sources all over the province. Groundwater having never been regulated, we don't even know how much water there is or how much is being used. We need the data, including local and traditional knowledge, for good planning, and then we need strong regulations with some hard limits, not just policy, to achieve the best balance of uses we possibly can, within the capacity of water sources to provide. There are hard decisions to be made--affecting drinking water, food production, industry, and Indigenous Rights and Title throughout the province. These are not decisions that can be made behind closed doors without the participation of the people who will be directly affected. First Nations and the public must be involved in the process of developing WSA regulations.
All of these things: ecology, economy, social equity and floating in the river on a warm summer night are what we were talking about as we called for a review of water rental rates under the Water Sustainability Act. Not commodification of water. Not sticking it to the corporate bad-guy. Effective planning and management of our shared home waters, waters that we all rely on in so many ways, every day, everywhere in BC.