British Columbia's water systems are under increasing pressure, and the provincial government introduced some major changes Friday as Environment Minister Mary Polak unveiled new water use legislation to replace a statute introduced prior to the Cariboo Gold Rush and the First World War.
The new Water Sustainability Act will replace the 1909 Water Act, and it will mean B.C. will no longer be the only province in the country not regulating groundwater use.
"The (Water Sustainability Act) will update and replace the existing water act, which we know is well over 100 years old," Polak said in Victoria.
Over four years of consultations, industry, communities and First Nations said the priority should be to ensure enough water in streams and rivers to sustain fish, Polak said.
"There's no question that this act will not cover off every single aspect of water protection and water use," the minister said in a telephone interview.
"It's not intended to. It's intended to govern the allocation of water — who gets how much, who gets to use what and when and the powers of government to deal with issues of scarcity, drought, etc."
Under the new rules, large-scale users now able to use water without limit and without cost will pay an annual fee and 85 cents for every 1,000 cubic metres of groundwater used.
For example, a Nestle Canada plant in Hope, B.C., that bottles an estimated 71 million imperial gallons — 319.5 million litres — of water for sale annually, would pay about $265, Polak said.
Overall, the new fees for groundwater are expected to put $5 million annually into the provincial coffers. By comparison, the fee regime for surface water that has been in place for many years, generated about $7 million a year.
Polak said the fees and the legislation have not been finalized. The province is seeking public comment until Nov. 15.
The new rules also attempt to prepare for the changing weather patterns and increased risk of drought in B.C. brought on by climate change.
"Being prepared for climate change means being able to adapt to changes in the water supply and demand over time," said the report released Friday by Polak.
By mid-century B.C. is expected to be warmer and wetter, the report said, with higher annual average temperatures and precipitation.
"While B.C. will become wetter overall, precipitation will not occur evenly throughout the year. Fall, winter and spring are projected to be warmer and wetter with more rain and less snow, particularly at lower elevations. Summers will be hotter with reduced precipitation in most areas."
The proposed legislation would also exempt saline aquifers buried more than 600 metres below the surface. Polak said the decision not to charge fees is an incentive to avoid fresh water for use in shale gas "fracking."
"When you consider the potential impacts of creating an incentive for the industry to avoid fresh water use in favour of saline use, that can have a significant impact on what we're currently seeing in behaviour of oil and gas companies in the northeast," she said in a telephone interview.
Polak said the new act is not the only statute governing water use in B.C. The Water Protection Act, the Fish Protection Act and the Drinking Water Protection Act remain in place.
The conservation group West Coast Environmental Law said it was pleased that the province is committed to new legislation.
But in some ways the proposed rules enshrine mistakes past in water management, said Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer for the association.
"They need to hear loud and clearly from British Columbians that this is our environment and our water and it needs to be protected fully," Gage said.
Spencer Chandra-Hebert, the environment critic for the provincial New Democrats, said anything would be an improvement but the legislation proposed is "fairly weak."
"Climate change is going to impact us and is impacting us in ways that we don't understand," he said. "It acknowledges it but it does very little to change.... It leaves a lot of discretion and a lot of potential for inaction."
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