B.C. updates water allocation rules

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by Peter Caulfield last update:Aug 28, 2014

BY PETER CAULFIELD - The Government of British Columbia is revamping water regulations to address new and upcoming demands for one of the province's key resources.

“It gives the province more tools to respond to those pressures,” said Ministry of the Environment manager of water strategies and conservation Ted White.

“It also brings water into land use decisions and, in general, makes water allocation in B.C. more efficient.”

The purpose of the legislation is to modernize the ways the province allocates water for competing uses, and to respond to current and future pressures on the resource, he added.

The bill is on its third reading and if it receives Royal Assent, the new act will replace the current legislation, which dates back to 1909.

There are four ways the new legislation could affect B.C.’s construction industry and other sectors of the provincial economy with which it does business, said Colwyn Sunderland, a specialist in asset and demand management with consulting engineers Kerr Wood Leidal Associates Ltd.

“What’s new under the proposed legislation is that ground water from wells will be brought into the act and treated like surface water sources,” he said.

“Any projects, such as ski resorts, mines, pulp mills and other industrial plants that require access to surface or now groundwater from outside municipal water systems will need to apply for a water license that will come with an assigned capacity.”

Sunderland said this aspect of the new legislation will have its biggest impact on those parts of B.C. with limited groundwater resources and greater competition for them.

“B.C. has lagged other jurisdictions on regulating groundwater,” said Sunderland. “Outside the larger urban areas of the province, groundwater is a more important source of water than surface water.”

He added he expects there will be some uncertainty in the beginning about how to do business under the new legislation.

“Approvals for water licences for groundwater will probably be slow at first, but I expect there will be more clarity in the process in the longer run,” he said.

The B.C. construction industry could also be affected by a closer connection between land use and water use.

“In the future there will be water sustainability plans,” Sunderland said.

“There’s no definition yet of what those plans will be, but they are expected to be more collaborative, community-driven and hands-on, and will include more stakeholders.”

Sunderland said municipal planning may become contingent on provincial water allocation requirements.

“For example, there might be some constraints on subdivisions and land use plans,” he said.

Third, Sunderland said, the new legislation will increase the number of enforcement tools available to the province to anyone found to be in contravention of the act’s regulations.

“Under the new legislation, there will be a wider range of enforcement tools, including small fines – the equivalent of getting a speeding ticket – bigger fines and compliance agreements for repeat offenders,” he said.

“These enforcement tools have the potential to impact any construction project.”

Finally, the new legislation might have to sort out questions of water use on projects in the gas industry in northeastern B.C.

“There is a perception in some quarters that the gas industry should be making better use of water supplies, and the new act might have to take those concerns into account,” Sunderland said.

The proposed legislation is a framework document only.

The details will come later on in the form of regulations and policy guidance for enforcement officers.

The act was introduced after a four-year period of public engagement and consultation with stakeholders across the province.

The B.C. Water and Waste Association (BCWWA) provided comment in 2010 and again in the fall of 2013.

“Overall, the association believes the province’s consultation process was fair and comprehensive,” said BCWWA CEO Tanja McQueen.

She said that although water is fundamental to our health and survival, most British Columbians take our water systems for granted.

“We simply assume that clean water will magically appear from our taps and our waste will be flushed away,” McQueen said. “But, our water resources are under increasing stress due to climate change, population growth, and urbanization, and we need better tools to ensure that our watersheds are protected and that our water resources are used responsibly.”

last update:Aug 28, 2014

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