Late last week, the Government of British Columbia released its
long-awaited legislative proposal for the new Water
Sustainability Act. It invited stakeholders to review the
proposal and submit comments before the new legislation is
introduced in the spring 2014 legislative session.
The current Water Act has been in force since 1909, and
has long been criticized as an impediment to adequate water
protection and management in British Columbia. The proposed
legislative changes will impact most industries operating in
British Columbia and are worth monitoring closely.
The legislative proposal, and its comment period, comprises the
third and final stage of public consultation on the new Act. The
Ministry of Environment began consulting with stakeholders in 2009.
It then released a discussion paper in February 2010, followed by a
policy proposal in December 2010. The proposed changes resulted in
a flurry of submissions from numerous stakeholders. It was widely
expected that the new Act would be introduced in the legislature in
2012. However, the government failed to table the legislation at
that time, and the matter has remained in abeyance.
The stated objective of the proposed Water Sustainability
Act is to focus the legislative framework on risk, the
competing demands for and scarcity of water, and to implement an
area-based approach to water management. The following seven policy
goals of the 2010 policy proposal have been retained:
protect stream health and aquatic environments;
consider water in land use decisions;
regulate and protect groundwater;
regulate water use during times of scarcity;
improve security, water use efficiency, and conservation;
measure and report large-scale water use; and
provide for a range of governance approaches.
Of particular note, the proposed Act would remove the
distinction between surface water use, which is currently regulated
under the Water Act, and groundwater use, which is
currently unregulated (except in certain instances under the
Oil and Gas Activities Act). B.C. remains the last
province in Canada, and one of the last jurisdictions in the world,
to not regulate groundwater use.
As proposed, the WaterSustainability
Act will also differentiate between small and large scale
users of groundwater. The latter will now require a licence or
approval, whereas in most circumstances, the former will not. While
the proposal does not define what constitutes a "large volume
user", it is expected it will be in the range of 250 to 500
cubic metres per day for wells in unconsolidated aquifers, and 100
cubic metres per day for wells in bedrock aquifers. Maximum
extraction quantities will be set out in groundwater licenses,
along with terms and conditions of pumping and use.
The proposal also includes an area-based approach to the
management of water use, regulating use more strictly in certain
areas or during times of scarcity. The government may require
proportional reductions in water use depending on water supply
forecasts. The proposal suggests legislation that provides for a
staged approach. License holders would first be encouraged to
implement efficiency and conservation measures, followed by the
imposition of a proportional reduction on all users based on water
supply forecasts. If those measures are insufficient, they would
then require shut-in based on priority date and, in exceptional
circumstances, by importance of use.
The proposed Act will establish flow requirements and
guidelines, which will be incorporated as enforceable terms and
conditions to water licences. The protection of instream flows and
the reduction of use during times of scarcity could result in
increased enforcement. Senior licensees, who have historically been
unregulated, could have their licences periodically reduced or
All of the above changes were included in the 2010 policy
proposal. What is new, and likely resulted from submissions by
industry in the last round of comments, is the proposal to manage
the use of saline groundwater differently than freshwater, due to
its industrial applications and lack of suitability for use as
domestic water supply. While the proposal provides few details in
this regard it suggests that saline groundwater could be defined as
water found more than 600m beneath the surface that contains either
10,000 mg/L of dissolved solids or 4,000 mg/L dissolved solids and
hydrocarbons or hydrogen sulfide.
Comments can be submitted until November 15, 2013 by email,
post, or fax to: Water Sustainability Act
Ministry of Environment
Water Protection and Sustainability Branch PO Box 9362, Stn Prov
Victoria, BC V8W 9M2
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