With British Columbia's (BC) new Water Sustainability Act (WSA) expected to come into force in early 2016, the provincial government is in the process of designing the regulations and operational policies that will support the implementation of the WSA. As part of the BC government's phased approach to implementation, it recently released four papers outlining proposed new policies which are expected to be incorporated into new WSA regulations. The papers are now available on the WSA blog for public comment until September 8, 2015.
The proposed WSA policies address groundwater licensing, groundwater protection, dam safety, and compliance and enforcement. Water pricing is not the focus of these papers, but will be reviewed in a separate process. Once these initial regulations are completed, the government will finalize other components required to fully implement the WSA.
Since groundwater is not regulated under the current Water Act, the licensing of groundwater use is perhaps the most significant new policy development under the WSA. Under the WSA, all groundwater users (except domestic wells) will require a water licence to divert water from an aquifer (unless the diversion is otherwise authorized under the regulations). For existing groundwater users, water licences will be issued based on their historic use of water. New non-domestic well users will be required to obtain a licence before using groundwater. Groundwater licensing details will be set out the proposed new Water Sustainability Regulation:
- Application fees for groundwater licences: The application fee for groundwater licences (which will range between $250 and $10,000 depending on use) will be waived for owners of existing wells who apply for a licence within 12 months of the WSA coming into force, after which the owners of existing wells will pay the full application fee. Owners of new wells who apply for a groundwater licence during the first 12 months would pay the full application fee.
- Priority dates for groundwater users: Under the current regime, surface water users are subject to the First-in-Time, First-in-Right (FITFIR) system under which senior licensees with earlier priority dates have precedence over junior licensees. Under the WSA, the FITFIR system will also apply to groundwater users. Existing well owners who apply for a licence within the three-year transition period will be permitted to seek a priority date based on their historic date of first use and their ongoing use of groundwater for a non-domestic purpose. Records related to the construction of wells and other works, environmental assessment certificates, well maintenance records, photographs or other corroborating information will be recognized as evidence of historic use. It should be noted that after the three-year transition period, owners of existing wells would no longer qualify for a historic priority date based on the date of first use; rather they would be treated as new applicants and receive a new priority date based on the date of application.
- Annual water rentals for groundwater users: Existing non-domestic groundwater users will be required to pay annual water rentals. The minimum annual water rental for "domestic and associated industrial domestic uses" starting in 2016 will be $50 with a volume-based rate of $2.25 per 1,000 m3 (the application fee will be $250). The minimum annual water rental for "industrial and commercial" use will be $200 with a volume-based rate of $2.25 per 1,000 m3 (the application fee will range between $1,000 and $10,000). If a water licence is applied for during the three-year transition period, the groundwater user would pay water rentals calculated from the date the WSA comes into force. After this period, water rentals would be calculated from the date the government issues the licence. With respect to groundwater protection, the existing Ground Water Protection Regulation will be replaced by a new Groundwater Protection Regulation (GPR) under the WSA. The GPR will incorporate most existing groundwater protection policies and introduce new policies designed to improve well construction and maintenance standards, as well recognize the types of professionals certified to drill wells and install well pumps in BC.
- On dam safety, a new Dam Safety Regulation (which will replace the existing regulation) will seek to reduce risk related to a dam failure. In particular, more stringent requirements for emergency planning, incident reporting and annual reviews of downstream conditions will be implemented.
- The proposed policies are designed to encourage existing groundwater users to apply early for licences. For existing groundwater users, an early assessment of existing groundwater use and facilities will help to keep application fees to a minimum and ensure compliance when the new Water Sustainability Regulation comes into force.
Finally, the BC government is proposing changes to the Violation Ticket Administration and Fines Regulation under the Offence Act that would align offence descriptions with those in the WSA, change fines for some offences, and new offences included in the WSA (including those related to the beneficial use of water, groundwater licensing, and enhanced protection of aquatic ecosystems).
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