Q: I understand that the incoming Water Sustainability Act will be brought into force in early 2016. What are some of the major changes we will be seeing with this new legislation?
A: The Water Sustainability Act received Royal Assent in 2014, replacing the 106 year old Water Act. The new Act will be phased in through the course of 2016 and 2017; the government has given a $25 million budget lift in order to implement the act.
This act focuses primarily on the quantity aspect of water management in BC and will alter the way in which water is licensed in the province; one of the biggest changes is that groundwater extraction will now require a licence for large water users (single family wells will be excluded). The Ministry of Environment is currently drafting the regulations to support the objectives and actions of the act and will focus on introducing the act in two phases. Phase one will introduce groundwater licensing, compliance measures and fines, and dam safety protocols while phase two will introduce water objectives around quality, quantity and eco-system health.
One of the criticisms from the POLIS project based out of the University of Victoria is that some of the antiquated features of the Water Act remain. For example, the First in Time, First in Right model of water allocation not only remains but is being extended to groundwater licensing. If you can document your use and “stake” of groundwater as being the first user “in time” then you may be eligible for the water extraction license if you are putting the water towards beneficial use. As water shortages occur, the oldest licence is the last to have their water extraction limited, regardless of end use. This allocation system is based on historical extraction rights stemming from the mining era but the necessity to share water is much more widespread these days. Allowing the oldest licence holders, regardless of end use, to have the precedent to extract water over other users could prove troublesome in times of water shortages or conservation.
A new provision being hailed as positive is that the actual definition of beneficial use has been included in the act and includes the concept of efficiency. Water licences are issued for beneficial purposes only and a licence cannot be held onto without intent of use nor can a licence be sold or traded. Another positive change is the extension of legal protection to fish habitat. Environmental flows have been outlined in the Fish Protection Act that establish legal stream flows must be able to support fish species, which could result in water licence limited or suspended for purposes other than domestic water use in order to protect fish habitat.