This fall, we’ve been hearing a lot about the collapse of major salmon runs across British Columbia. An estimated two million sockeye have returned to the Fraser River this year, far short of the more than six million predicted in preseason forecasts. The returns of pink salmon are even more dramatic. There’s a connection between low salmon returns, the drought we experienced in many parts of BC this summer, and the need for the BC government to develop strong environmental flow rules as it develops new regulations for the new Water Sustainability Act.
As groups, communities, and Nations that are working hard to protect fresh water in the province, we need to make sure the BC government sets clear and binding regulations as it develops its new Water Sustainability Act to ensure there is enough water left in rivers, lakes, streams and creeks to maintain the habitat needed to sustain healthy fish populations and other aquatic life.
In recent months, the BC government has indicated that it is planning to set environmental flow needs in policy, in contrast to its previous commitment of setting flow needs as a regulation in Living Water Smart released by the BC Premier’s office in 2009.
What can BC’s freshwater community do?
- Check out our new free resource Getting it Right: A Communications Toolkit for Strengthening BC’s new Water Sustainability Act.
- Send out a press release to local print, television and radio media, and/or write an op-ed and/or a letter to the editor connecting low salmon returns with the need for environmental flows in regulation not in policy, using the background and talking points below and in the Toolkit.
- If you live near one of the collapsed runs along the Fraser or near Adams/Shushwap, find a local hook and tie it to the need for strong environmental flow regulations. Get in touch with us if you need help.
- Connect conversations on water pricing with the need set “high enough” rates that allow the WSA to be fully resourced and implemented, including resources for monitoring.
Background on BC’s new Water Sustainability Act:
In May 2014, the BC government passed the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) into law, replacing our century-old Water Act. The new Act is a promising piece of legislation, with potential to set stronger protection for how much fresh water is being taken by different users and how much is needed for a healthy environment. However, much of the potential of the Act depends upon the BC government’s drafting, implementation, funding and enforcement of forthcoming regulations over the next few years.
The provincial government is currently working on key areas of groundwater and environmental flows. Final groundwater regulations will be released with the implementation of the Act in January 2016. Environmental flow rules will likely be rolled out later in 2016.
Environmental flow needs refer to the amount of water that needs to be left in place in streams, rivers, lakes, creeks, and aquifers, especially when there are competing uses on the same water body and during drought.
In February 2015, the BC government announced new water rates for all license holders to take effect when the Act is implemented in January 2016. The rates released were appallingly low, sparked a public outcry in the spring and summer of 2015, garnered significant media attention, and a petition with over 130,000 signatures calling on the government to review the rates. In July 2015, Premier Christy Clark publically committed to reviewing the rates one year after they are implemented. We need to get government to commit to a public timeline for reviewing the rates.
You can check out what’s needed for a strong Water Sustainability Act in the recent POLIS report “Awash with Opportunity: Ensuring the Sustainability of BC’s new Water Law.”
Talking Points on the need for Environmental Flow Regulations
- The critical drought conditions across BC this past summer could have been mitigated if a strong WSA had already been in effect. This is why it is so important that the BC government gets it right with finalizing the Act’s regulations.
- Salmon need healthy flows to thrive and spawn, and depend directly on adequate levels of fresh water. This year, both sockeye and pink salmon have had very poor returns on the Fraser River, the largest salmon system in the world. This summer’s drought has had a devastating impact on salmon returns in critical areas across BC. A low snowpack and lack of rain have lowered river levels in B.C., making habitat and spawning grounds unsuitable.
- The BC government has indicated in recent months that it is planning to set environmental flow needs in policy, in contrast to its previous commitment of setting flow needs as a regulation in Living Water Smart released by the BC Premier’s office in 2009.
- The BC government must set environmental flow needs in binding regulation – not policy – that requires decision makers ensure water levels in lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers are maintained so that fish survive and watersheds can function.
- BC government needs to ensure that environment flow needs must be protected when issuing new licenses and when reviewing existing licenses; that the consent of First Nations in BC must be obtained when setting environmental flow objectives and critical environmental flow thresholds; and must enforce monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for environmental flows, and ensure that these are financially resourced, with data made available to the public. See West Coast Environmental Law’s Statement of Expectations for the Water Sustainability Act.
Let's do this.
The Water Sustainability Act is the best chance we have to protect British Columbia’s lifeblood--our waters. The devil is in the details, and the public must be vigilant and stay involved as key regulations are developed over the next few years. We finally have a chance to modernize our water laws and make a strong piece of legislation that can inspire the country and the world, so let’s make sure to get it right. People living in British Columbia have a right to have a say over what happens to our water. And it’s up to BC’s freshwater community to lead the way!
P.S. Our friends at West Coast Environmental Law have just written a fantastic blog post connecting the need for e-flows in regulation with the recent BC Environmental Appeal Board decision that resulted in rescinding Nexen's water license for fracking.