Will the proposed new law improve water protection in BC?

People across the province of BC have been waiting for the update of the 100-year-old Water Act for years. The release of the detailed legislative proposal is meant to bring BC’s Water Act up to speed with 21st century thinking. Have they got it right? WWF recently came out with the Top Ten Reasons Why British Columbia Needs a New Water Act.  Here’s a look at how the province’s proposal measures up.

A kayaker enjoys the scenic beauty of the Skeena River in Spring. Northwest British Columbia, Canada © Mike Ambach
A kayaker enjoys the scenic beauty of the Skeena River in Spring. Northwest British Columbia, Canada © Mike Ambach

10: Because a new century requires new rules
Check! The proposed new act has some significant improvements over the current one. The commitment to consider the water needs of nature is a giant step forward and the province has finally caught up with every other jurisdiction in Canada by committing to license groundwater – the vital water found below the surface. These changes start us down the path of managing water from an ecosystem perspective, that is, treating the water above and below the surface as one interconnected system.
9: To promote wise water use
Check! With an average use of 448 liters per person per day we definitely consume a lot of water, removing water from nature where ecosystems desperately need it. For this reason WWF is happy to see the government has included efficiency as one of the items to consider when reviewing a water license.
8: To adapt to a changing climate
Not quite. While the proposal acknowledges climate change is happening and new tools are needed, there is no explicit proposal to incorporate climate change into the Water Act. WWF has suggested making climate risk a trigger for developing Water Sustainability Plans.  Explicitly recognizing climate change as a risk to aquatic resources in the Water Act would vault BC to a leadership position on climate adaptation in Canada.
7: To protect our waters for future generations
Fail! No mention of the public trust is found in the proposal. The hesitancy to acknowledge government’s responsibility to steward our aquatic resources in the interest of the people is a deficiency in the opinion of many commentators.
6: Because healthy waters mean healthy fish
Check. The flow needs to keep a river healthy (Environmental Flow) will be considered before any licenses are issued to water users. The Act will give the government new powers to halt water extraction by non-essential users when water levels dip below Critical Environmental Flow levels. The proposal will also expand the list of prohibited substances considered as harmful debris to BC’s lakes and rivers, further protecting water quality throughout the province.
5: Because oil and water don’t mix
Fail! A number of loopholes limit the application of the Water Act to oil and gas development. The failure to address the issue of repeated renewal of short-term approvals for water use by Oil and Gas companies is a major issue. The proposal also suggests exempting saline groundwater from requiring a water license.
Flooded Blueberry farm. Abbotsford, BC, Canada Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/KarenMassier
Flooded Blueberry farm. Abbotsford, BC, Canada
Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/KarenMassier

4: Because better measurement leads to better management
Check! The new Act will require large water users to measure and report their actual water use. Details around what to report, how often and to whom remain to be worked out but the proposed monitoring and reporting is progress.
3: To protect our groundwater: B.C.’s buried treasure
Check! Change is possible. The government’s proposal will require the licensing of non-domestic users of groundwater, addressing one of the most significant shortcomings of the current approach to managing water in BC.
2: To clarify First Nations rights
Unclear. It is unclear how First Nations Title and Rights will be addressed in a new Act.  This critical government-to-government issue must be addressed in the Water Act Modernization process.
1: Because we need water for nature and water for people
Getting there. The legislative proposal says decision makers must consider Environmental Flow Needs when issuing new licenses, which we hope means they “must protect” or “must maintain” Environmental Flow Needs. Old licenses that are having negative effects on the Environmental Flow Needs of BC’s waterways must be amended to maintain water in streams and wetlands.
So does the new proposal get a passing grade? WWF supports the BC government’s efforts, and particularly welcomes the regulation of groundwater and new powers to protect environmental flows.
A photograph of the Fraser River in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada that has flooded its bank. Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Cathy Britcliffe
A photograph of the Fraser River in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada that has flooded its bank.
Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Cathy Britcliffe

With an overall score of 6.5/10 there is still room for improvement before the Act is tabled in the Legislature this spring . We have recommended a number of enhancements to the proposed policy in our detailed submission.
Please take a read and let your MLA know you care about improved water protection, and want the new Act to be as strong as possible.