British Columbia's long-awaited Water Sustainability Act (the "Act") came into force on February 29, 2016. The Act replaces the long standing Water Act, which was over 100 years old. To date, six regulations associated with the new Act have come into force: the Water Sustainability Regulation, the Water Sustainability Fees, Rentals and Charges Tariff Regulation, the Groundwater Protection Regulation, the Dam Safety Regulation, and the Water District Regulation.

The Act and its associated regulations introduce a number of significant changes. For the first time in B.C.'s history, the Provincial government is regulating groundwater use. The new regime also imposes fees for water use, provides protection for aquatic ecosystems and groundwater, imposes new requirements for well construction and maintenance, introduces additional compliance and enforcement mechanisms, and improves dam safety.

Groundwater Regulation

Those using groundwater for non-domestic purposes now require a licence to extract and use groundwater. The licencing requirement applies to existing groundwater users, however the Act includes a three year transition period during which existing users must apply for a water licence. The licencing fee will be waived for the first year.

Fees for Water Use

The new Act and associated regulations impose fees and rentals on water use. The rates were announced in February 2015, and the same rates apply to both surface and groundwater use. Industrial and commercial users will be charged $2.25 per 1000 m3, while those using water for storage and conservation purposes will be charged $0.02 per 1000 m3. As of February 29, 2016, annual water fees and rentals begin to accrue for non-domestic groundwater users. Existing surface water users may experience changes in their water bills as of February 29, 2016, depending on the water use purpose set out in the licence.

Aquatic Ecosystem and Groundwater Protection

The Act introduces new measures to improve protection for aquatic ecosystems and groundwater. Decision makers must consider the environmental flow needs of any stream or aquifer potentially affected by the granting of a licence or other water use authorization. Environmental flow needs are defined in the Act as the volume and timing of water flow required for the proper functioning of the aquatic ecosystem of the stream. The Act also contains expanded prohibitions on dumping debris into streams and aquifers.

The Groundwater Protection Regulation introduces restrictions on the location of wells as well as requirements for well maintenance and monitoring. Artesian wells and well pits are restricted under the new regulation.

Well Construction & Maintenance

The Act and Groundwater Protection Regulation expand requirements applicable to wells, and the new statutory regime now applies to all well owners, regardless of what water use purpose their well water is intended for. The Groundwater Protection Regulation includes requirements related to construction, maintenance, deactivation and decommissioning of wells.

Compliance and Enforcement

New compliance and enforcement mechanisms are included in the Act. The Act introduces alternative enforcement mechanisms, such as remediation orders. A reclassification of offences is also possible.

Dam Safety

The Act and Dam Safety Regulation impose new requirements on dam owners. Emergency preparedness plans are now required. Mandatory risk classification reviews are also imposed by the new regime.

The B.C. Government has indicated that it will begin working on the next phase of regulations and policies later this year. Topics for the next phase of regulations and policies include measuring and reporting requirements, livestock watering rules, water objectives, and planning and governance objectives.

Any business dealing with water use should be aware of the new statutory regime and its implications. Property owners should also be familiar with the new regime, particularly those who have wells on their property or who have control or ownership of a dam.