Following years of consultations with First Nations, outdoor and recreational groups, Polak introduced the Water Sustainability Act in Victoria on Tuesday.
Expected to come into effect in the in the spring of 2015, the new law will replace one that has been on the books since 1909 — a time when B.C.'s population was just 350,000, said Polak.
"The development of the new Water Sustainability Act is an achievement of historic importance for British Columbia," said Polak. "The act will respond to current and future pressures on our fresh water including, groundwater, and position our province as a leader in water stewardship."
The Environment Ministry said in a news release that the new law will better protect aquatic environments such as streams, consider water in land-use decisions and regulate the resource during times of scarcity.
The act will also help officials measure and report large-scale use and regulate and protect groundwater.
The minister said that during the consultations, which began in 2009, the government received thousands of ideas and recommendations.
Polak also announced the government will be reviewing its approach to water pricing and has released a set of principles that will help set up a new fee and rental structure.
She said the government will be engaging British Columbians on the issue during the next month.
"That feedback will help us as we go about designing a new framework for fees and rentals," she said.
Not all large-scale water users have been paying for their water, in one case the Nestle Canada plant has been paying nothing to bottle an estimated 256 million litres of water for sale annually.
Under such a framework, new fees could apply to Nestle.
Mark Angelo, spokesman for the Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia, welcomed news of the new legislation, saying it was something his group wanted for a long time.
He said the Water Act was developed during an era when the needs of fish and aquatic ecosystems were not recognized. Angelo said he also remembers a time when rivers would be "bled dry" during long, hot summers.
"Provisions to protect environmental flows and critical habitat for fish are now much more explicit in this legislation, and that is very, very positive," he said.
Angelo said the new legislation also focuses on maintaining the health of aquifers, noting water tables are dropping around B.C.
"When needed, this legislation will enable government to lessen extraction rates so that aquifers can be recharged," he said.
Ducks Unlimited Canada, a group dedicated to wetland conservation, also lauded the legislation, even though it doesn't specifically address wetlands.
"The previous act left many critical components of B.C.'s water quality and quantity unaddressed, like the importance of groundwater and sustainable water flow in watersheds," said spokesman Les Bogdan.
"The new act will ensure that water quality and quantity will receive greater protection and wetlands and waterfowl will surely benefit."
Once it becomes law, the Water Sustainability Act will be among a handful of statutes protecting the resource. Other laws include the Water Protection Act, the Fish Protection Act and the Drinking Water Protection Act.
-- by Keven Drews in Vancouver