Groundwater dis-contents: BC water savings could dry up

Before you make a big purchase, you want to know how much money is in your bank account. Groundwater is like an underground bank account, yet we currently manage it with a blindfold on. 

We lack a full understanding of how much we have or how withdrawals affect the health of our surface rivers, lakes and streams. However, over 1 million British Columbians depend on clean, fresh flow of wells, aquifers and underground rivers, and this number is growing. Stored groundwater could be a critical part of adapting to a new reality of water insecurity that comes with extreme weather, reduced snowmelt and receding glaciers. Now more than ever, we need a balanced water table to ensure we don’t become the next California or Cape Town. 

Across BC watersheds, fresh water—the foundation of the province’s ecosystems, communities, and economies—is under growing pressure. Climate change and shifting hydrological conditions are rapidly ushering British Columbia into an increasingly uncertain water future. - POLIS (2016) Top Five Water Challenges

Although BC’s most powerful water law is priming water managers to do a better job than ever before to account for and manage groundwater judiciously, a scan of recent events across our province suggests that inadequate knowledge and a lack of regulation continue to allow for the depletion of this precious asset.

Recently, K’ómoks First Nation and the community of Merville in Comox Valley on Vancouver Island were caught off guard by an approved application to withdraw groundwater from their local aquifer. A conditional water licence was issued by the Province of BC to allow the extraction of up to 10,000 litres of freshwater per day for a commercial bottling operation. This is like issuing a stack of pre-written cheques to withdraw daily from a bank account without knowing the balance.


Merville is not alone: Local communities speak out

Last summer near Lake Cowichan, residents and area representatives of the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) looked on helplessly as a neighbour pumped 500 gallons a minute for three days out of the aquifer that hundreds of homes rely on for drinking water, as a test for a future housing development. The test was legal and didn’t require a permit. The CVRD was unable to intervene because the Water Sustainability Act is provincial jurisdiction.

In Chilliwack, the WaterWealth Project has worked tirelessly through the legal system to advocate for changes to the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion route to protect a primary source of community drinking water supply (the Sardis-Vedder aquifer) from contamination. Kinder Morgan was staunchly unmoved until Nestlé took issue with the proximity of the expanded pipeline to their water bottling facility, at which time they appeared suddenly cooperative.

In 2015, amidst level 4 drought conditions and raging wildfires, residents of Hope in the Fraser Valley reduced their water use under mandatory restrictions, but not without expressing their anger at the irony that multinational corporations continued to pull groundwater for a mere $2.25 per million litres. The Chawathil First Nation and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs have also laid claim to the groundwater extracted from their traditional territories without due consultation.


What now?

All of these examples point to the need for a robust province-wide strategy for monitoring and regulating use of groundwater. The Water Sustainability Act is taking important steps in this direction, but it needs to do more. Local watersheds are not all created equal, and Indigenous and non-indigenous local voices must be involved in the decision-making that affects their rights, water security and livelihoods.

We see an urgent need for the Province to incorporate local voices in transparent decision-making affecting their watersheds. Pressing questions about who decides how freshwater is allocated and how decisions are made has sparked a call to the Province to take immediate Action for our Aquifers starting with these 3 asks:

  1. Groundwater protection: Robust and publicly available groundwater mapping and monitoring, environmental flow regulations and considerations of cumulative impact in all water licences;

  2. First Nations reconciliation: Meaningful co-governance and collaborative consent with Indigenous Nations in all aspects of the regulatory development phase for the WSA; and

  3. Fair water pricing: Review water rentals and ensure that rates are high enough to encourage conservation and generate the revenue needed to protect the health of our shared waters.

Send your letter

Join hundreds of people across the province who have sent letters to Ministers and local MLAs requesting they take Action for our Aquifers.

When we unite our voices, we demonstrate how important this issue is to British Columbians and that we need to take action to prioritize and defend our water before it is too late.

Send a note to your MLA and B.C. Ministers to them know that fair, robust and collaborative action for freshwater is an urgent priority for British Columbians and cannot be ignored.