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Province needs to invest in protecting water supply: Auditor General

The provincial government doesn't know enough about B.C.'s water supply or who is using it, putting this "valuable treasure" at risk, according to B.C.'s Auditor General John Doyle.

The Auditor General released a report today that examined existing information, protection measures and access controls in place to ensure groundwater sustainability. Doyle concluded that the ministry of environment does not have enough information about existing groundwater resources, and does not have adequate protection of groundwater or control over who is using it.

"What we found is that we're not good stewards as a province of this valuable treasure," Doyle said. "One million British Columbians actually rely upon this underground water for their day to day needs. That doesn't include agriculture or industry. The interaction between ground water, surface water and watersheds needs to be better understood and managed."

The report made seven recommendations, which include:

  1. Classifying the provincial aquifiers in priority areas
  2. Review the Provincial Ambient Groundwater Quality Monitoring Network to ensure there is sufficient monitoring of groundwater levels and quality across the province.
  3. Develop a groundwater information management strategy that takes into account detailed scientific information and identified trends
  4. Take the lead on coordinating the consolidation of all of the groundwater monitoring information collected by provincial ministries and other agencies
  5. Develop and deploy systems to protect groundwater from depletion and contamination
  6. Develop a framework that clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities for managing groundwater provincially and locally
  7. Ensure that integrated watershed management plans are developed for all priority watersheds.

The report noted that the ministry is already in the process of reviewing its Groundwater Program, and is updating the provincial Water Act through its Living Water Smart program.

However, the report also noted that "while the ministry has a number of initiatives underway that will continue to protect groundwater quality and quantity, to fully implement the audit recommendations will require substantial additional funding and staff. Costs associated with upgrading the existing databases for groundwater data and to classify and characterize aquifers are in the order of $4.5 million over the next five years."

Doyle also said that the current situation in British Columbia is that "almost anyone can drill a hole and access water." The issue of water withdrawals in B.C. is becoming more important as oil and gas development expands. In August, the B.C.'s Oil and Gas Commission suspended water withdrawals in the Peace River watershed a few days after releasing it's first ever report on water use in the oil and gas industry. The report found that in one year, from April 2009 to March, 2010, the industry withdrew more than 78 million cubic metres of water.

The ministry of environment responded to requests for comment with a written statement that reads in part: "The Ministry of Environment recognizes the need to protect the quality and quantity of our groundwater, and this audit report presents valuable information on the importance of groundwater resources."

"While government has a number of initiatives underway that will continue to protect groundwater quality and quantity, fully implementing the audit recommendations will require significant resources that will have to be carefully considered in light of government's priorities."

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee

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