We are pleased to share the following bulletin on pending changes to the Water Act in British Columbia prepared by Tony Crossman, an environmental law specialist in our Vancouver office.

BC government proposes new Water Sustainability Act

In an effort to modernize BC’s 100 year old Water Act, the BC government has introduced into the Legislature the new Water Sustainability Act.  Although it will have some familiar features from the old Water Act and theFish Protection Act, it will introduce some new features such as the establishment of water objectives, consideration of environmental flow needs of stream in licensing decisions, new powers when streams are at risk of falling below critical environmental thresholds and an administrative monetary penalty scheme.  It will also regulate groundwater for the first time in BC; and the BC government is currently reviewing its approach to water pricing.

The new Water Sustainability Act has been at least five years in the making.  Some of the key features of the proposed law are:

Groundwater regulation: Groundwater will be regulated using the existing regime that applies to surface water, which includes the existing “first in time, first in right” system of water allocation.

Water Protection: The new regime allows for the establishment of water objectives which are to be considered in decision making affecting water (ie licensing and allocation). It also requires consideration of environmental flow needs of a stream in licensing decisions. There are new powers available when streams are at risk of falling, or have fallen, below critical environmental flow thresholds.

“Water Management Plans” are renamed “Water Sustainability Plans”, and the proposed law contains extensive powers relating to developing such plans and implementing them, including that these plans can override other laws.  There are provisions that require “mitigation and offset” where there is harm to a stream caused in one place and which can be offset by enhancement in another area.

Licensing & Approvals:  The government will be able to issue repeat short-term water use authorizations (up to 24 months) to the same person, for the same purpose with respect to the same place, which would formalize the practice of some regulators, such as the Oil and Gas Commission for fracking, and which was recently challenged in the Courts by environmental groups. 

Enforcement: The new regime will provide more enforcement options including administrative monetary penalties and compliance agreements.

If passed, the new law is proposed to take effect in the Spring of 2015.  Between then and now we can expect the development of a set of regulations that will provide more details of this proposed new regime.