B.C. legislation will require licences for wells

Water Sustainability Act | Province will honour existing licences once legislation is approved

CRESTON, B.C. — Linda Allison admits she was skeptical of the government’s intentions when she was invited to sit on an agriculture committee to review British Columbia’s 100-year-old water act.


“I am happy with what we were able to achieve,” said the Princeton area rancher.


The Water Sustainability Act passed third reading in the B.C. legislature at the end of April, and will be law in 2015 once regulations are written.


A major change in the act was a section to protect and measure surface and groundwater use. That meant farmers and ranchers will have to get licences for their wells. 


Allison said the committee dug in its heels over licensing but eventually relented. 


“Actually, getting the groundwater licence is the only security you are going to have for that water in times of drought,” she said in an interview at the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association annual meeting, held in Creston May 22-24.


Many farmers and ranchers depend on wells for livestock watering and domestic use as well as irrigating forage crops. 


The government also agreed to honour existing licences, which may date back more than 120 years. As well, it will continue the policy of first-in-time, first-in-right (FITFIR), which gives priority to the oldest water permits during time of shortage. 


“That was a huge win for us to retain FITFIR,” she said.


“In a time of drought, FITFIR will definitely apply, but that minimal domestic water will be allowed,” she said. 


Minimum domestic water use is 250 litres per day during times of scarcity.


The act also encourages watershed planning, which means the agricultural industry must make sure it is well represented when those plans are written. 


Stan Vander Waal, chair of the B.C. Agriculture Council, agreed that the four year process to revise the act was worthwhile. 


“There was a lot of genuine concern that there would be trumping of agriculture use in every way, but the process allowed for good understanding of the needs of agriculture, and that translated into what we consider pretty good modernization of the act,” he said. 


The next step is water pricing. Public comments are under review now. 


Environment minister Ted White said B.C. water has been managed well, but there are competing demands as the population grows and climate changes. 


“We have a good supply of water, but because of distribution throughout the year, there are pressures on the resource throughout the year,” he said at the BCCA meeting. 


The province wants to ensure there is a strong framework to deal with future issues and make sure allocation is handled fairly to ensure adequate supply, quality and continuing environmental health.


The act includes 200 sections, and policy themes cover stream health, aquatic environments, inland water use, managing scarcity during time of drought, conservation and water use efficiency. 


The regulation and licensing of groundwater use is a major change. 


“We recognize the groundwater resource has been developed over time to fit into the existing surface water system, but we need some better reporting on use,” he said.


White said the province looked at other models of allocation and decided FITFIR was the easiest scheme to regulate. However, a 30 year licence review is included in the new act.


“It is not a tool to take back water rights, but it is a tool to make sure the way water is being used is for the purpose it was allocated for and the purpose is beneficial for the sector you are in,” he said.