High-volume groundwater users in B.C. could soon be better regulated, but one local crusader doesn’t think the new rules go far enough.
After four years of consultation, the provincial government is putting the finishing touches on the new Water Sustainability Act to replace its century-old predecessor.
An overview prepared by the B.C. government notes that despite the existence of an estimated 100,000 wells in the province today, “extraction and use of groundwater has not generally been regulated.”
Under the new act, groundwater would be treated much the same as surface water by requiring some users to obtain licences and pay fees, plus report how much they use.
Domestic users would be excluded from the permit process, however, and reporting would only be required by those who extract more than 250,000 litres a day.
By comparison, the average daily demand on the City of Penticton’s water utility is about 18 million litres, according to its annual report.
Coral Brown, who has long fought against plans for development in the Twin Lakes area she fears will deplete the groundwater there, said the 250,000-litre threshold is too high.
“We need to know how much is going out and how much is going in, because small users add up, too.” said Brown, secretary of the Lower Nipit Improvement District at Twin Lakes.
Aside from that, she’s pleased to see the B.C. government take a more holistic approach to water policy.
“They’re considering groundwater and surface water as one. That’s so true and it’s never been considered before,” she said.
In addition, the new act would maintain the so-called first in time, first in right rule that prioritizes users of a given water supply based on when they first tapped into it.
During periods of scarcity, however, that rule would be superseded by new policies that give priority to protection of fish habitat and provision of water for human and livestock consumption.
“What they’re suggesting in the new water act is nothing will ever trump residents being able to get drinking water,” said Nelson Jatel, who has co-ordinated the Okanagan Basin Water Board’s response to the Water Sustainability Act.
He detailed his group’s reaction to the proposed legislation at last week’s meeting of the board of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen.
Jatel said his organization is generally supportive of the plan, although it has a few concerns, such as whether the B.C. government will provide adequate resources to enforce its new rules.
“There’s significant concerns around downloading to local governments,” he said.
The water board is also worried about new policies for deep pools of saline groundwater, suitable for oil and gas production, that would regulate them separately from fresh water since the saltwater is unsuitable for drinking and believed to be disconnected from other supplies.
Jatel said that’s one of several provisions in the act aimed at streamlining the regulatory process for the oil and gas sector, but noted it also mentions creation of a new Agricultural Water Reserve that would ensure water presently available for farmers is not lost to development.
The new act is expected to be introduced when the B.C. legislature resumes sitting early next year.