Despite a last-minute rush in applications from B.C. businesses seeking licences to keep using groundwater, about 60 per cent of existing users missed the March 1 deadline and risk losing their access to water.
As of the Tuesday deadline the government had received almost 8,000 applications.
“There was a sharp increase in applications this month,” the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said in a statement. “In fact, over 3,000 submissions were received since the beginning of February, which accounts for 39 per cent of the total applications submitted since 2016.”
The ministry attributed the late rush to the additional staff and resources put in place to help people complete applications.
But even after the uptick, some 12,000 of the estimated 20,000 non-domestic users of groundwater — generally from wells or dugouts for agriculture, industry or other businesses — had failed to meet the deadline to apply for a licence.
They’re at risk of losing access to the water they have relied upon for farming or other operations.
In a Feb. 7 blog post, Forest Minister Katrine Conroy, along with Agriculture Minister Lana Popham and Environment Minister George Heyman, argued that the Water Sustainability Act is key to strengthening water security in the province.
“Licensing provides the ability to effectively manage our groundwater resources through a changing climate by ensuring we know the number of users and the quantity of water required for their use,” they wrote.
In recent months leaders of the BC Liberals and BC Green Party had called on the government to extend the deadline.
On Monday, the BC Liberal critic for rural development, Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson, repeated that call in the legislature.
“The government has bungled along, failing to communicate to farmers, ranchers and small business owners who are at risk of losing precious water rights in this province,” he said. “The NDP has simply failed to properly reach out to those who are being impacted.”
Conroy said her ministry was working on the issue, including by simplifying the application process and by reaching out to industry organizations to help.
“We are finding that the majority of people, the big users, are saying they are going to sign up,” she said. “We're hoping that they will do that. We understand the issues, and we are working on it.”
With the deadline now passed, the government will keep supporting groundwater users to come into compliance, the ministry’s statement said, adding it’s necessary to regulate an important resource.
“While we are not going to be unreasonable with those who are not in compliance after today’s deadline, we are serious about the need of users getting this done and we urge groundwater users to get their applications in,” the ministry said.
Licensing groundwater ensures that water management decisions can be made through a fair and transparent process, they said. It helps protect aquifers and streams, as well as people who depend on them for their business or livelihood.
“B.C.’s water licensing system helps reduce conflicts between water users, particularly in times of drought and water scarcity,” they said.
The requirement for a licence came out of changes to the province’s Water Sustainability Act brought into force in 2016.
Users of groundwater, other than for a domestic purpose, were given a three-year transition period to apply for a licence and begin paying water use fees, a policy that recognized their historic use and brought them under the regulations with fewer requirements than new users would face.
If they failed to get a licence by the deadline they would have no right to use groundwater until they got a licence. They would lose guaranteed access to the water and have to reapply, facing the risk of long delays. Under the new rules, getting a licence could require expensive studies to show there’s enough water available and there’s no guarantee the licence would be granted.
In 2019, when that special treatment was previously set to end, the government extended the deadline and gave users until March 1 this year to apply.
Since at least last summer, former civil servants and others with knowledge of the situation had warned that few people were aware the deadline was coming and said it could have severe consequences for water users, food security and the economy.