History of the Water Sustainability Act


  • In 2008, the Ministry of Environment embarked on its Water Act Modernization process, with the release of Living Water Smart: British Columbia's Water Plan. In the plan, the Province committed to updating the Province’s freshwater legislation, among other actions. Over the course of several years, the province engaged in consultations with the public, stakeholders and rights holders.


  • In May 2014, the BC government passed the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) into law, replacing BC’s century-old Water Act of 1909. Although the law was passed in the legislature, it was not brought into effect (i.e. applied as law) until nearly two years later.

  • The WSA is an “enabling act”, which means it gives government authority to take action on matters related to the freshwater protection. However, the details and scope of those actions will be largely determined by supporting regulations.

  • Although a step in the right direction, there are some significant concerns with the legislation. Common criticisms include that it fails to adequately recognize First Nations’ rights and title, and the “First-In-Time, First-in-Right” provision that gives water rights priority based on how long water users have had licenses instead of beneficial uses or environmental needs.


  • In February 2015, the provincial government released new water rates as a first step toward the rollout of the WSA. The rates released were incredibly low ($2.25/million litres of water), which sparked public outcry. A petition calling on the provincial government to set fair rates gained over 230,000 supporters and garnered significant media attention.

  • In response to public pressure, the government announced in July 2015 that it would review the rates a year after the Act has been in force. This means that we should expect to see a review of rates beginning in February 2017.


  • On February 29th, 2016, the WSA was brought into effect through an Order in Council. This means that the new Act officially applied as law, updating and replacing the old Water Act.

  • Along with calling the Act into force, the government released a series of new regulations, such as ones that require non-domestic (e.g. industrial and agricultural) groundwater users to apply for licenses for the first time in B.C.’s history.

  • There are concerns with the new regulations. One is that existing groundwater users can be granted licenses even if the water withdrawal impacts aquatic ecosystems. That means that licenses may be granted from streams that are already over-allocated, and that these licenses could be “locked in” until the review period in 30 years.

  • There are still many pieces of the puzzle missing with regard to how the Act will protect freshwater. To address these gaps,  the provincial government has committed to developing regulations in areas such as water governance and planning, monitoring and reporting , and more over the next few years.


  • Although the Provincial government initially stated that it would develop the next set of regulations (on monitoring and reporting) by the end of 2016, they later revised the timeframe until sometime in 2017.

  • The government has not shared much information with regard to their process for developing new regulations.  However, it is crucial that the development of new regulations is a transparent process, and that there must be meaningful input from local communities and First Nations. A transparent and inclusive process will help to ensure rigorous regulations that protect  water in BC for people and nature.