British Columbia's new Water Sustainability Act (the “Act”) received Royal Assent in May 2014 and is expected to come into force in early 2016. The Act replaces the century-old Water Act and aims to address modern water issues.

Much of the Act's heavy-lifting is being done through a gradual implementation of regulations developed in conjunction with public consultation. The first phase of this process involved public feedback on the government's water pricing proposals and resulted in a new water fee and rental schedule being released this past February.

The next phase of the consultation process is underway, with the release of four policy proposal papers and the government's request for comments. These papers address proposed policies and regulations relating to groundwater licencing, groundwater protection, dam safety, and compliance and enforcement. Each of these initial regulations is, pending government review and approval, expected to be brought into force with the Act in 2016. A summary of each is provided below.

Groundwater Licencing

This paper provides an overview of the regulation of groundwater use under the Act and the proposed policies relating to groundwater licencing.

A key feature of the Act is that groundwater use, previously unregulated, will now be subject to similar rules that govern surface water use. All non-domestic groundwater users will be required to obtain a licence and begin paying water licencing fees.

Well owners who apply within three years of the Act coming into force can seek recognition of a priority date based on their historic date of first use. Any applications made after the 3 year period would receive a new priority date based on the date of the application.

Recognition of a historic date of first use is important because the new regime will follow the First-In-Time, First-In-Right (FITFIR) system, meaning that in times of scarcity, those with earlier priority dates will have the right to use their full allocation of water before junior licensees.

The new regulation also proposes a number of exceptions to the FITFIR system, such as giving priority to domestic-use wells during water shortages and by temporarily limiting or stopping groundwater usage when it would threaten environmental flow or aquifer levels.

Groundwater Protection

This paper outlines a number of proposed measures aimed at preventing groundwater contamination. The measures will apply to all groundwater users, both domestic and non-domestic. The government proposes to:

  • require that all well-related activities be conducted by qualified professions;
  • regulate new well locations to protect the integrity of the FITFIR system;
  • implement improved management and monitor controls to ensure stormwater runoff does not contaminate aquifers;
  • enact requirements that ensure artesian wells do not cause environmental or property damage;
  • prohibit, with limited exceptions, the new construction of well pits (an outdated well technology) due to the risk of contamination they pose;
  • enact a number of requirements that ensure proper well maintenance; and
  • authorize the government to deactivate or decommission 'not in service' wells after a period of time.

Dam Safety

The paper discusses the proposed new Dam Safety Regulation. Building on existing dam safety policies, the government proposes to:

  • expand dam safety regulation to apply to groundwater-based dams, which previously had only applied to surface water-based dams;
  • require dam owners to prepare more thorough Emergency Preparedness Plans;
  • improve communication between dam owners and authorities, including greater transparency of dam management records and making more stringent notification requirements in order to more effectively respond to emergencies; and
  • increase mandatory reviews of risk-based classifications.

Compliance and Enforcement

The final paper outlines proposed new offences and fines, not previously included under the Water Act. These include offences related to beneficial use of water, groundwater licensing and enhanced protection of ecosystems. These will be incorporated into an updated Violation Ticket Administration and Fines Regulation. The proposed regulation would give government new powers to impose and collect fines and the ability to order site remediation in lieu of a fine.

Submissions Deadline

The published deadline for comments and questions on the proposed polices is September 8, 2015. For more information, each proposal paper can be found here. Comments can be sent to livingwatersmart@gov.bc.ca.