We have good reasons to celebrate in BC on World Water Day 2016.
On February 29 the new Water Sustainability Act came into effect, bringing BC water law a big step toward the 21st century with long overdue recognition that groundwater and surface water are one system.
March 21st the BC Supreme Court sided with residents and local government around Shawnigan Lake who have been struggling, and even facing arrest, to protect their drinking water.
Also March 21, after years of foot dragging, the province finally seems to be taking steps to address contamination concerns on the Hullcar aquifer that supplies the Steele Springs Waterworks District in Spallumcheen.
And broadly speaking we still enjoy among the most beautiful and pristine streams, rivers, lakes, and aquifers in the world right here in BC.
World Water Day is a good opportunity to reflect on what brought these successes and how we can continue to protect the freshwater that is so precious, and the physical, spiritual, cultural and ecological prosperity that water makes possible.
The successes mentioned above, and many like them, have certain things in common, key among them: the love people share for their shared home waters. When those waters come under threat people rally together with courage, creativity, and determination to get to work and protect the water they drink, swim, fish, and relax from, in, on, and around.
People from all walks of life share their time and talents to sign and share petitions, conduct letter-writing, phone, email, and social media campaigns, organize and attend rallies, marches, and blockades, and pursue costly court challenges.
Another thing such successes have in common is that people have to share petitions, conduct letter-writing, phone, email, and social media campaigns, organize and attend rallies, marches, and blockades, and pursue costly court challenges.
They do this because decisions are being made in Ottawa or Victoria that often do not reflect the wishes or best interests of local residents whose home waters are affected.
That those actions lead to success is a credit to the hard work, sometimes for years, of people protecting their home waters. Perhaps overlooked is the fact that in those winning cases the community had the capacity to conduct and maintain those campaigns. Local people were able to give up enough time and money to keep up the fight. Media attention can be crucial. In the case of the Hullcar aquifer journalist Mark Hume wrote multiple stories in major Canadian newspapers in February and March, 2016 that brought the issue to the attention of a wide audience. Is it a coincidence that government action on the issue followed that series of news stories after two years of inaction?
How many communities do not have the capacity, contacts, and perhaps luck to conduct similar successful campaigns? In their report "Water Rush, Why B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act fails to protect water" the Council of Canadians reported that as of January 2015, there were 579 drinking water advisories in BC, some going back to the 1990's and some (such as the Hullcar aquifer) where boiling the water still does not make it drinkable.
One of the concepts that gave birth to the WaterWealth Project was that local people should have the right to say 'yes' or 'no' in decisions that affect their home waters. People should not have to volunteer their time and spend their money fighting their own government to protect their home waters. We foresee a time when local people will have real say through well resourced local watershed governance plans and structures to make decisions founded in local values and knowledge, informed by the best science available. We look to the new Water Sustainability Act (WSA) as an opportunity to move that concept forward. Indeed the WaterWealth Project has been one of the most engaged community groups in the province on the WSA since we launched in early 2013, making the issues accessible and connecting the public to consultation processes as the act was developed and regulations for it began to be written.
We need everyone on board to see this through. While the WSA is a major win for advancing water governance in BC and has great potential to secure our shared water wealth for generations, there are also worrying indications that the government may water it down.
The first regulation the province published for the WSA, early 2015, was water licence fees and 'rental rates', the amount large water users like bottling companies pay by volume they use. To everyone's surprise, the government chose to waive the licence fees for the estimated 20,000 existing non-domestic groundwater users who will be brought into the licensing system under the new law. They say this multimillion dollar give-away is in recognition that groundwater users have invested in their own wells.
With the water licence fees nullified, what of the water rental rates? Those rates top out at $2.25 per million litres. A shockingly low rate that begs the question; how will the province fund the science, monitoring, and enforcement to implement the WSA properly? Some may wonder whether higher rates might deter businesses from investing in BC. To answer that, consider that the City of Chilliwack, WaterWealth's home community, on March 15, 2016 passed bylaw amendments to protect drinking water supplies in response to multiple inquiries from water bottling corporations about connecting to city water for bottling. Proposals a city staff report said would "place significant strain on the City's water supply capacity." Those bottlers, were they to proceed, would pay the city rate of $448.50 per million litres, 199 times the province's rate (prior to the bylaw changes of March 15 which also raised city rates slightly) and essentially voluntarily given that those same bottlers could put down their own well if they chose to pay the province's rate instead.
That water licences would be given away for free and that water rates would be so low was not something the province included in public consultations, including a discussion paper and consultation specifically on water pricing. WaterWealth, SumOfUs, other groups and many thousands of British Columbians fought for and achieved a commitment from the province to review those rates after the first year of the WSA being in effect.
The next regulations announced by the province came when the WSA was put into effect February 29, 2016. It seemed odd that after years of work and widespread public interest the WSA was brought into effect without a press release. Minister Thomson of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) signed the orders bringing the WSA and a handful of regulations into effect. That same day FLNRO did issue a press release about the opening of a new bridge on a snowmobile trail. At WaterWealth we wondered what the province was trying to keep quiet?
We believe we found the answer in Water Sustainability Regulation section 55 (4) which exempts all of the estimated 20,000 existing non-domestic groundwater users from consideration of environmental flow needs as the province hands out their free 30-year water licences. Again something that the province never mentioned in intention papers or public consultations.
This exemption negates one of the greatest improvements of the WSA over the 1909 Water Act, the consideration of the needs of nature in evaluating applications for water licences. Consideration of how much water a river needs so that, for example, there will still be salmon to bring nutrients from the sea, effectively fertilizing BC watersheds, and spawning their next generation, continuing a cycle that feeds many species both inland and at sea.
We know that this exemption will result in water shortages and conflicts between water users. Hydraulically connected streams will be impacted, and through those impacts First Nations' Constitutionally protected fishing rights. When those conflicts happen we will be faced with the complexity and expense of clawing back water allocations to address the problems. It is an open question whether in the case of a conflict involving a foreign owned licence holder they might turn to a dispute under NAFTA or other trade agreements to defend their by-then-licensed water use. We could well find ourselves embroiled in conflicts where a local aquatic ecosystem is caught between a Rights and Title case and a trade dispute. An extremely expensive mess whichever way it plays out.
Given the urgency and importance of this environmental flow needs exemption WaterWealth and other freshwater advocates are considering all the options--those petitions; letter-writing, phone, email, and social media campaigns; rallies, marches, and court challenges--that are the standard fare of citizens denied meaningful say in a process. The provincial ministers involved, Mary Polak of Ministry of Environment and Steve Thomson of FLNRO, will argue that the public consultation on the WSA so far has been extensive, and it is true that they made plenty of space for all of us to talk. The problem is that there was not enough listening going on with all that talking.
The old water law stood for over a hundred years. The new one may stand another hundred. We've got our work cut out for us to make sure we get it right, and on this World Water Day we renew our resolve to protect our shared home waters. We also look forward to a day when local people will have meaningful involvement in decision making, when the path to progress will be through collaboration rather than conflict.
Thank you for being with us!