The BC’s government’s long-awaited Water Sustainability Act came into force last week. In Blewett, a forested, mixed-farming community, residents have a lot of questions about what the province’s new water laws will mean for us — in particular, what the new act will mean for the 100 households that depend on Aquifer 511 and for Okinshaw Water, the bottled water company that, according to government documents, taps into this same aquifer.
The centrepiece of the new act is the introduction of licenses and pricing for groundwater use for the first time. BC is (in)famously one of the last jurisdictions in the global north to regulate groundwater, instead relying on a Wild West approach of taking groundwater wherever, whenever, and in whatever volumes. All that changes with the new act which will phase in licensing for groundwater users such as irrigators, waterworks, and yes, water bottling companies, which use groundwater for non-domestic purposes.
Of special interest to the people of Blewett are the interactions between groundwater and surface water since more people in the Kootenays rely on creeks and streams than anywhere else in the province. A 2010 report by the BC auditor general pointed to a lack of information and understanding about this relationship in BC, and how the total amount of groundwater diverted will affect the whole water system.
For example, how will environmental flow needs be established and protected when new licenses are issued? How will cumulative impacts of existing groundwater extraction on surface water flow sustainability be assessed? Will groundwater licenses be conditional and subject to review after they have been issued?
Will First Nations’ consent — be these “recognized” peoples or not — be sought not only in in determining which users should receive licenses in the province’s “first in time, first in right” system? And finally, fully implementing the Water Sustainability Act means not only developing strong regulations, but also ensuring sufficient funding for the people most affected to programs to help them establish what their needs are.
In Blewett, we wonder whether there is enough water in the local aquifer to supply our needs as well as those of a company striving to be the “leading premium bottled water company in the world.”
The BC government characterizes our little aquifer as 11 square kilometers, while Okinshaw speaks about a “35 square kilometre catchment area” and an “underground lake [that] is extremely vast.” With no idea of how much water we have underneath us, no aquifer mapping or reporting or monitoring requirements in place, or even agreement that we’re talking about the same aquifer, how can we issue licenses without knowing what we have?
Our regional director contacted the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, which responded that while a detailed aquifer groundwater quantity and quality study can be done, these are typically large projects that span multiple years, and “requir[e] significant resourcing and collaboration between multiple government agencies.”
Instead of waiting for the axe to fall, our Conservation Society executive decided to launch a petition asking the government to withhold issuing any commercial groundwater licenses until a third party environmental assessment has been done, adequate water supply is confirmed, and a water sustainability plan for the community (that includes public consultation and ongoing water monitoring) is in place. People can also write to their elected officials through the society website, blewettconservation.com.
As the climate continues to shift around us (Level 4 drought conditions in summer of 2015), we need not just water security now but also the ability to respond to and adapt to changing conditions. Two wells in our community already ran dry last summer. For our community’s children and their children, and so on, water will be the resource that ensures the health and wealth of the ecosystem they will rely on.
It will take broad community involvement to hold the government’s feet to the fire so that the Water Sustainability Act has strong regulations in place to protect our collective values. This means that above all new groundwater licences be based in sustainable stewardship, be conditional and be subject to review and revocation if Aquifer 511 doesn’t continue to provide for our basic needs. Only our vigilance will ensure that Water Sustainability Act regulations and enforcement reflect our collective will.
K.L. Kivi is a director of the Blewett Conservation Society and has lived in Blewett for 22 years.