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Unpacking BC's Proposed Water Sustainability Act

Updating century-old legislation isn't easy, but we deserve better than what's currently on the table.

Randy Christensen 12 Nov 2013TheTyee.ca

Randy Christensen is a staff lawyer and water policy specialist at Ecojustice, Canada's leading environmental law charity. Randy is also the author of Waterproof, a series of national report cards on Canada's drinking water standards.

Water is British Columbia's most important natural resource. Our health, environment and economy all depend upon access to clean water. Yet you'd never know that from looking at how B.C.'s water is being managed.

The Water Act and other provincial legislation have historically failed to prevent water scarcity and ensure that there's enough water to satisfy competing economic, environmental and human health needs. The Water Act has also failed to provide the public fair return on a publicly-owned resource.

That we need a new water law is old news. Both government and advocacy groups have called for the Water Act to be updated so that it is adequately equipped to manage modern-day water demands. And at long last, it seems that progress might be right around the corner.

In late October, after many false starts and delays, the B.C. provincial government unveiled its answer to calls for a modern water law: a proposed Water Sustainability Act.

Sadly, the proposed legislation is just the latest example of the province's penchant for promising excellence and delivering mediocrity. It wasn't long ago that Gordon Campbell's government promised to deliver "the best air and water quality, and the best fisheries management, bar none." A decade later, B.C. is the only place in North America that doesn't regulate groundwater and we've just gone through a multi-year inquiry to find out why wild salmon stocks crashed in 2009.

The proposed Water Sustainability Act is such a weak improvement over the current Water Act that one has wonder why the province has gone to such great lengths to trumpet the announcement and engage the public at all.

A cynic might say that the government wants to create the appearance of protecting water before unleashing a frenzy of fracking, liquefied natural gas and pipeline projects on an increasingly wary B.C. public.

Another explanation might be the growing consensus that water risk is a business risk.

Unrestricted water use seems like a good thing in theory, until you realize that your competitor's profligate use of water is one of the biggest threats to your own supply. Investors, such as global giant Goldman Sachs, are starting to evaluate countries and companies based on water supply risk. Perhaps the proposed Water Sustainability Act is simply meant to tighten up the most egregious failings of B.C. water management before investors start to look askance at our oversight failures.

Once in a lifetime chance

Whatever the motivation, B.C. residents deserve better than the mediocre offering currently on the table.

While the proposed legislation won't necessarily make B.C.'s water problems worse, it certainly won't fix them either. The good news is that the province still has an opportunity -- quite literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance, given how frequently water laws are updated in this province -- to produce a strong final law that will protect our most precious natural resources.

In this series, I'll assess the problems B.C. faces, what's being proposed, why it's inadequate and how we can do better by following some examples from across Canada and around the world.

This is the first of four pieces in this series prepared by Ecojustice. Tomorrow: Water and the public trust. Thursday: Water and the environment. Friday: What happens if B.C. is tapped dry?  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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