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VIEW: Is BC really going to get a modern Water Sustainability Act?

[Editor's note: The Tyee received this unsolicited op-ed from Oliver Brandes, co-director of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the University of Victoria. We publish it here for your consideration.]

Words have meaning. But, as we all know, governments don't always give this meaning much attention when making promises.

Six years ago, almost to the month, on the shores of Musqueam Creek, then-Environment Minister Barry Penner made a series of promises as part of the Provincial Water Plan, Living Water Smart. Many of those promises never came to fruition, but the flagship of that plan was to modernize the over 100-year-old B.C. Water Act.

The Water Act was a relic from a bygone era when the province was largely focused on settlers, miners, and loggers. Creating certainty for investment to kick-start a resource-based economy was top priority.

Fast-forward 100 years and the province is certainly a different place -- one of high rises, high tech and increasingly high tides. Water is acknowledged by almost all sectors, and certainly across the full political spectrum, as critical to our future. Citizens get it, the media get it, the bureaucrats get it. Now politicians are getting it, too.

After an exhaustive -- and exhausting -- six-year consultation and engagement odyssey, the Water Act modernization process is now complete. Bill 18 was passed into law this week and a new B.C. Water Sustainability Act has arrived. While this is certainly a good step forward, the question remains: is this Act really something modern with the promise of sustainability at its core?

The new Act is a big and complicated piece of legislation. So it's not surprising that there is some good, bad, and a little ugly as part of the package. The province did get a few things right, including groundwater licensing, improved water planning, and critical attention to environmental flows as a priority.

Last summer's controversy around Nestlé pumping tons of water at no cost and selling it back to us in bottles symbolized the exclamation point on the failure of the previous water laws. Groundwater licensing is long overdue and, with the new Act, the government can now move forward with managing water as one critical resource -- both above and below ground.

Another important aspect of the Act is its the potential for delegating or sharing responsibilities with regional watershed entities that might better understand local needs in areas where water conflicts or ecosystem risks exist.

The protection of environmental flows to keep fish alive and thriving is a prominent theme that runs throughout the Act, and represents a major improvement from its predecessor. Not only will decision makers be required to consider environmental flows and other critical water "objectives" related to quality, quantity, and ecosystem health as part of future allocation decisions, they will also have legal tools to ensure that minimum thresholds in our rivers trump existing water rights. Keeping enough water in place to ensure fish survive and watersheds can function is a fundamental hallmark of any modern water law.

The big missed opportunity would have been moving past the archaic "first-in-time, first-in-right" priority system and embedding the public trust doctrine. The public trust would make it absolutely clear that government is only the custodian of the province's fresh water, holding it in trust for its citizens and generations to come. Providing a clear signal for this in the legislation would have ensured no decisions could degrade or undermine the health and function of B.C.'s fresh water. By providing independent oversight and robust mechanisms for citizens and communities to play a more direct role in decisions that affect us all, B.C. would have jumped to the front of the queue of modern and sustainable water law, and could have become a national -- and potentially even global -- leader.

Yet, there are still many uncertainties regarding this Act since many of the critical details about thresholds and triggers still need to be worked out in the regulation development phase. This will likely take another three to five years, but from what we have seen so far, the province is generally on the right track.

So, at the end of this long and sometimes upstream paddle are British Columbians getting a modern and sustainable water act? Early signs point to yes.

The Act signals a fresh approach based more on stewardship and protection than simply on rules for resource extraction. But, as with all things that really matter, we must remain vigilant. Government should find the resources to turn concepts into action, and continue its commitment to open, transparent dialogue as vital details are worked out in regulations.

And, all of us must become architects of our sustainable water future by ensuring our leaders keep their promises -- with meaning and actions to match their words.

Oliver M. Brandes is the co-director of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, based at the University of Victoria's Centre for Global Studies, and leads the POLIS Water Sustainability Project. He is a lead author of the recent report "A Blueprint for Watershed Governance in British Columbia."

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