Treat water rights with the respect they deserve

March 9, 2011

On Canada’s frequently drenched west coast, it is sometimes easy to forget that there are times and places where water is scarce.
A case in point is northeast BC, where last year’s drought led to a five-metre drop in water levels at the Williston Reservoir, fields grazed by buffalo were reduced to stubble overrun by grasshoppers, and water levels in local rivers fell to 50-year lows.
Meanwhile, in the distant community of Vernon, the Okanagan city’s drinking water reservoir fell to critically low levels in early spring, triggering strict conservation measures – a crisis that was only alleviated in the early summer after enough rain fell.
With mounting evidence that climate change is altering regional precipitation patterns, it is obvious that a comprehensive water conservation strategy and legislative change is long overdue.
Thankfully, we in the sometimes-wet southwest get this. While we complain about the rain, we intuitively understand that access to clean supplies of water is vital to our collective wellbeing.
Late last year a poll commissioned by the Vancouver Foundation and WWF-Canada found that nine in 10 British Columbians named fresh water as our most precious natural resource. Nearly as many respondents (86%) identified fresh water as essential to our prosperity and quality of life – an impressive level of agreement in our frequently polarized province.
Such responses underscore the wisdom of the choice our government made more than two years ago to embark on a long overdue review of provincial water legislation, with the goal of revising BC’s century-old Water Act by 2012.
The province subsequently received more than 1,000 written submissions and solicited opinions at numerous public meetings all aimed at informing how we modernize the rules governing water use in the years ahead.
The poll results and submissions tell us that urban and rural residents want strong, legislated water flow standards. Two thirds of poll respondents also place a premium on healthy water flows and say that environmental objectives should trump even economic development, because without a healthy environment there is no healthy economy.
We also know that there is broad support – including support from some farmers, who understand better than most the linkage between water and food security – to change BC’s antiquated “first in time first in right” water allocation system. Such a concept doesn’t work particularly well for unruly kindergarten kids lined up at a single water fountain at recess. It most decidedly will fail in an environment where our population grows and that great wildcard of uncertainty – climate change – enters the mix.
Thirdly, we need new ways to govern how water resources are managed. Communities, for example, must be more involved in the land-use and resource development decisions that affect local fresh water systems. Right now, they hardly have a say in crucial decisions that could affect them in significant ways, opening the door to preventable public health risks and potentially crippling watershed restoration and water treatment costs.
Finally, BC is in the embarrassing position of having no meaningful groundwater licensing regime. The end result is that we risk sinking too many wells into the ground in places where there is insufficient water.
Worse, BC lacks baseline information on how much renewable water –groundwater or surface water - we actually have. Lacking proper hydrometric records, how can we be confident, for example, that many of the hundreds of proposed run-of-river hydro projects in the province make sense or can ultimately be sustained?
In the coming weeks as a new BC premier seeks to put his or her stamp on government, the temptation may be to abandon previous initiatives. But it would be a catastrophic mistake to forestall the commendable efforts to bring our Water Act into the 21st century. Now is not the time to be timid. Instead, government should be bold and devote the resources needed to accomplish this critical task.
Last year’s drought in the northeast underscores why. Energy companies are pumping the first of what could be tens of billions of gallons of freshwater deep underground to boost natural gas production. Pipeline proposals before provincial regulators would divert water to distant gas wells; water that would be piped across parched fields and to which farmers would have no access. Tensions between landowners and First Nations on the one hand and industrial water users on the other are already palpable.
Such tensions will only grow in the absence of Water Act reforms that all British Columbians deserve. Doing nothing is not an option. Getting it right, on the other hand, offers a new leader the tantalizing prospect of doing the right thing for the environment and public alike.
Hans Schreier is a professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.