When it comes into force next year, British Columbia’s new Water Sustainability Act (WSA) will ensure our water is properly regulated, protected and conserved for future generations.
It will do this by, among other things, regulating groundwater use for the first time, improving our understanding of water use and availability, and ensuring our streams and waterways remain healthy.
And in times of drought, the new law allows government to step in to ensure water is first used to protect public health and safety.
Many provisions have been built into the new WSA that enable us to deal with drought better, including critical environmental flow thresholds and the requirement for users to measure and report their water use.
The WSA also protects access to water for essential household needs, followed in priority by critical environmental flows. Other rights and water use would be subsequent in priority based on their priority date.
Various new tools will ensure a sustainable water source such as better protection for fish and aquatic environments, enhancing regulatory tools to respond to drought and scarcity and bringing in area based regulations to address local needs if required. Additional tools can also be applied to specific areas to respond to local pressures on water resources.
Throughout the development of the WSA, we’ve reviewed how other jurisdictions manage their water, including dealing with drought. We are closely monitoring the situation in California to see if there are lessons to be learned for implementation of the WSA. That said, it is important to note that water supply conditions and water management systems in Western U.S. states are dramatically different to ours in B.C.
To address this year’s low flow conditions, government will rely on existing regulatory tools and policies under the current Water Act and Fish Protection Act, and the Provincial Drought Response Plan. These existing tools provide a good foundation for managing water and include precedence of rights (first in time, first in right) and fish population protection orders. These tools will be maintained when the WSA comes into effect with enhancements.
We are also in the process of updating our Drought Response Plan for this year. This plan, implemented by a multi-agency committee, offers a range of regulatory and non-regulatory tools to respond to droughts.
Many communities in B.C. are prepared to deal with water supply shortages and low streamflow conditions with drought management plans and water conservation programs that are already in place. As well, staff from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations on Vancouver Island and in the Southern Interior are currently working with other agencies on regional drought response plans in anticipation of deteriorating conditions.
Water conservation is everyone’s responsibility. The new Water Sustainability Act provides British Columbia with new, effective ways to manage drought.
Mary Polak is the Minister of Environment for British Columbia