Clean lakes, rivers and groundwater are the foundation of life. If our water is not healthy, neither are we.
However, water quality in BC is at risk from pressures like resource extraction, heavy industry and rapid land-use change. In recent years, we have seen many cases of BC water being contaminated: with mining waste, nitrogen, toxic algae blooms, and debris from forestry, to name but a few.
The recently approved Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline is a big threat to our waters. According to the National Energy Board, the expanded pipeline will carry diluted bitumen across more than 1,000 watercourses in British Columbia. In Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, its route is set to wind along the shores of the Fraser River, one of the world’s most important salmon rivers. This despite that there have already been several documented pipeline spills by Kinder Morgan projects in BC.
Currently, those who who approve resource or other projects in BC are not legally required to consider how they will impact water quality. But, the Water Sustainability Act could change that. The Act allows for the creation of Water Objectives, which could allow communities to reject projects that would negatively impact water quality or quantity of ground or surface water.
FUNDING FOR WATER
With all of the pressures on our water, it's vital that we dedicate enough resources to keeping it in good health. Creating a BC watershed sustainability fund is an important step toward supporting activities that keep our water healthy: activities like water monitoring, restoration and stewardship.
This fund could easily be created by ensuring commercial and industrial water users pay high-enough rates for the water they take. Under BC’s current pricing structure, commercial users like Nestlé pay a mere $2.25 for each million litres of water they take from the environment--the same amount they charge for a 1L bottle of water! For Nestlé, taking as much water from the environment as an Olympic sized swimming pool only costs $5.63. The rest of us have to pay more than that just to swim in one at our local rec centre!
These low rates caused a public outcry in the summer of 2015, prompting hundreds of thousands of people to sign a petition calling on the government to charge fair rates for industrial and commercial users. Although the BC government committed to a pricing review by February 2017, it has yet to follow through on that promise. Higher rates are hardly contentious. In Nova Scotia, water rates are 65 times as high!
With watersheds in BC increasingly susceptible to drought and strained water supplies, we need to think carefully how we value our water, and whether current water uses reflect those values. At the very least, BC should charge water rates that are high enough to encourage conservation and generate the revenue needed to ensure our water’s health.
SHARED DECISION-MAKING WITH FIRST NATIONS
First Nations have lived in BC since time immemorial. With generations of accumulated knowledge, First Nations have a deep understanding of and connection to the land and water of their territories. As original inhabitants, they also have a unique and inherent right to their territories.
When decisions about our water are made without meaningful consultation with First Nations, bad outcomes can result. For example, in 2012, the provincial government granted a water license to a fracking company in Northeastern BC. The license allowed for the removal of large volumes of water from the environment. Fort Nelson First Nation disputed the license, knowing it would have negative impacts on the environment, but it was granted anyway. A legal appeal ensued, and after 20 months the license was cancelled by the Environmental Appeal Board citing the original decision to grant the license as “arbitrary”, “untested”, and generally not informed by sound evidence. If government had worked closely with Fort Nelson First Nation to begin with, the whole debacle could have been avoided.
The Water Sustainability Act could be a tool to enable collaborative decision-making with First Nations. However, this requires government to engage in good faith with First Nations while developing the Act, and recognizing and upholding the unique and inherent rights of First Nations.
When First Nations are equal partners in decision-making, our waters are better protected for everyone.
When a community’s water supply is impacted, it is local people who suffer the consequences. Therefore, local communities should have control over decisions that affect their waterways.
Currently, many decisions that impact our water are made by industry or government officials who live elsewhere. For example, in communities on Vancouver Island like Comox and Port Alberni, boil water advisories are increasingly common. This is because forestry operations generate sediment and debris that enter waterways, making them cloudy and unfit to drink. However, since timber companies have tenure on upland forested areas, local government and community organizations cannot influence the way forestry is carried out.
If implemented with care and rigour, there are many opportunities for the Water Sustainability Act to empower local control. For example, the Act sets out a framework for the creation of water sustainability plans that could allow local community members--including First Nations, local government officials, community organizations, and various stakeholders--to prepare legally binding plans that ensure watershed health. The Act could also enable collaborative decision-making models, which could provide resources for place-based solutions to local water challenges.
Provisions for local control are incredibly important. Local communities know and care about their watersheds, and they are the ones who have the know-how and drive to protect them.
The water cycle is an amazing thing. Water moves through the environment, and life follows its flow. However, when we take water from the environment, it affects water’s flow, and the life that depends on it.
Diverting water from the environment can put a lot of stress on natural ecosystems. Fish have had a hard go in BC’s waters in recent years. In the Thompson River, 2016 marked one of the lowest Steelhead trout run on record. That same year, Fraser River sockeye salmon runs were also devastatingly low. The previous year, sockeye salmon runs in the Okanagan were a fraction of what they were expected to be, and in 2012, there was so little water in the Cowichan River that volunteers had to carry fish upstream so they wouldn’t die. In all of these rivers, agricultural and industrial water licenses divert large volumes of water.
Healthy water means healthy quantities of water left in streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers to sustain people, animals and plantlife. This is even more important in an era of climate change, when decreasing snowpack and drought will put more pressure on water supplies.
The Water Sustainability Act commits to “considering environmental flows” before issuing water licenses, however currently how this happens is up to the discretion of provincial decision-makers. We need to have legally enforceable rules that ensure there is enough water left in the environment before issuing new water licenses.