Fresh water has been on the minds of British Columbians through much of 2015. Record low snowpacks, almost unprecedented drought and wildfires, and the provincial government in early stages of implementing BC's new Water Sustainability Act have all contributed to growing recognition that even in BC we cannot take freshwater for granted.
With the Water Sustainability Act, the first major overhaul of BC water law in over a century, we have the opportunity to match how we manage water with how we value water. Not just in terms of economic value, but also widely held cultural, ecological and spiritual values. One of the most significant changes is that we will at last consider the role of groundwater in the water cycle and in our water use.
The Water Sustainability Act (WSA) is enabling legislation, a framework within which regulations being developed now and over the next several years will secure our water future for generations to come--or not.
What we do next is critical, and we have an opportunity now to provide vital input on groundwater regulations.
The first WSA regulation to be produced by the province was new water licence fees and rental rates. When the new rates were announced in February, 2015, water advocates, policy experts and academics decried the rates as too low to do the job. It seemed the WSA was at risk of becoming nothing more than a paper tiger. WaterWealth partnered with SumOfUs.org to petition the government to review the rates and show British Columbians how they intend to fully fund the WSA. That campaign met with considerable opposition both inside and outside government but finally two days before the 225,000+ petition signatures were to be delivered to the Environment Minister, the government announced that they would review the rates.
This success demonstrates once again that that the public can hold government accountable. Shortly after that campaign's successful conclusion government announced the next regulation topics under development;
- Groundwater licensing;
- Groundwater protection (essentially regulations concerning well drilling and decommissioning);
- Dam Safety, and;
Of those the groundwater licensing is most broadly relevant and will have the most far-reaching impact. Groundwater licensing is so critical that legal and policy experts took the lead in developing an Environmental Sector Expectations for BC's Groundwater Regulations.
Groundwater is one system with surface water, moderating temperature, quantity and quality of streamflows. It is integral to social, economic and cultural wealth in BC from fisheries, agriculture, industry and communities. However, groundwater having never been regulated before, data on groundwater supplies and uses is incomplete or lacking entirely in BC watersheds.
There are areas of the province where water sources are already oversubscribed, and certainty of supply is not assured in many areas with changes already being seen due to climate change. Despite these facts the government has made groundwater licences good for a minimum of 30 years with no clear mechanism for ensuring sustainability of existing uses and no fixed requirement for licence review even after 30 years.
It is vital that British Columbians speak up before September 8th to call on the province to ensure the new groundwater regulation does not tie our hands. We need the ability to adapt as a more complete picture of water availability and use in the province develops, including projections for future supplies and demands. With that in mind we offer the following points to consider in your input to government on the new groundwater regulation.
1. Define Sustainable groundwater management
The regulation must clearly define sustainable groundwater management. An example from California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act: "Sustainable groundwater management means the management and use of groundwater in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing undesirable results"
2. Initial licences must be conditional and reviewable
Knowing we are starting with insufficient data means we should commence regulation with conditional licences having a built-in review period of 5 years to avoid lock-in.
3. Licences must be issued in compliance with sustainability principles
Specific considerations must be set in regulation not just policy. Considerations must include sustainable groundwater management, cumulative impacts, Environmental Flow Needs and long term multi-generational management of groundwater.
4. Oversubscribed basins must be closed to new licences
Regulations should set out priority basins in which more stringent regulations and local planning tools such as Water Sustainability Plans will be given earliest priority. Criteria for closing fully allocated basins must be made clear in regulation.
5. Reporting must include baseline data on aquifers and actual use
This is particularly important given the uncertainty and lack of aquifer mapping in BC. Monitoring must be adequately funded and not rely solely on self-reporting by users.
6. Saline groundwater must be included in groundwater regulation
Saline groundwater is best managed within the groundwater regulations, recognizing the interconnectedness of freshwater and saline groundwater aquiferes. Use of saline groundwater where appropriate encourages conservation of potable groundwater.
7. NE Oil and Gas human health risk assessment recommendations
Water related recommendations of the North East Oil and Gas Human Health Risk Assessment should be implemented in the WSA groundwater regulations eg groundwater and vulnerability mapping.
Please provide your comments before September 8, 2015. Links to the current regulation discussion papers and other information can be found on the government's WSA blog. You can provide your input in the comments under blog post #16, or by email to email@example.com.
Let's get BC's new water law right the first time. A lot is riding on it.
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