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BC's Ugly Road to Water Scarcity

How our province creates H2O haves and have-nots, a sure path to shrivel.

By Randy Christensen 15 Nov 2013 |

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 scarcity isn't something that most people associate with B.C. It's big, much of it is a rainforest, and the population is relatively small when compared to many other places around the world. There's more than enough water to go around, right?

Properly managed, there's little doubt that B.C. would have enough water for people, the environment and a healthy, sustainable economy. But that's not the current reality. Troublingly, the province is already pushing up against the limits of water availability.

When a stream or lake cannot support any more water users, or use only under very limited circumstances (e.g. use during wet periods), the province imposes a water restriction. More than 4,600 water restrictions are in effect across B.C.

The map below was generated using the B.C. Water Resources Atlas, an online resource. What it shows, in red, is that problems with water availability are more concentrated in areas with higher population densities.

We're much closer to water crises and conflict than most people realize. Throw in climate variability caused by climate change, and we'll be there.

'Lord of the Flies' management style

When scarcity hits in B.C., it won't be pretty. That's because the province has used, and under the proposed Water Sustainability Act will continue to use, a system known as "first in time, first in right."

Think of it as Lord of the Flies meets water governance. The "first in time" system creates water haves and water have-nots. It prioritizes users by date of first water use -- meaning the older licence always wins. If there's a drought and not enough water to go around, the newest user gets shut off completely, then the second newest, and on through the priority chain.

There is no proportional cutback of water use and no consideration of human health impacts. If a golf course has an older licence than that of a nearby community, the golf course is still entitled to its full allocation of water. If there isn't enough water left over for the community, it'll have to go without.

Under the proposed Water Sustainability Act, B.C. is not only keeping the "first in time" system, but extending it to the tens of thousands of groundwater users that will to be brought into the system.

Sticking with the "first in time" method of water management inevitably dooms B.C.'s water management system to a logistical logjam of conflicts and strife. It won't be good for the environment or most B.C. residents, but will likely be a boon to lawyers in the province.

582px version of BC water map
In red, the location of the 4,663 "water allocation restrictions" in place across B.C. Source: B.C. Water Resources Atlas.

B.C. needs get rid of the "first in time" system and move toward a modern, flexible allocation system that prioritizes essential human and ecological needs. Such a system would also require belt-tightening from all users in times of scarcity. Water availability changes from day to day and year to year. Handing out licences that have specified, unchanging allocations is like writing big cheques without thinking about where the money will come from.

The province also needs to do a much better job of requiring water use to be monitored and reported. Surprisingly, B.C. collects almost no data on water use by major industries in the province. It's a glaring hole that cripples the efficacy of environmental stewardship efforts and the province's ability to respond during periods of water scarcity.

Fight for a worthy water future

When it comes to water management in B.C., there's a lot at stake. If we get it wrong -- and looking at the proposed Water Sustainability Act, the outlook isn't exactly rosy -- all of B.C. will be forced to grapple with conflict, litigation, missed economic opportunities, lost revenue and environmental ruin.

The good news is that things can change.

The province has enough water to go around, provided that it's managed properly. We can avoid the conflicts that come with water shortages, provide for the environment and have a robust economy that won't be compromised by water supply risk.

The Water Sustainability Act is still at the proposal stage. We can and must do better. There is still time to submit your comments to the Ministry of Environment. Once the comment period closes, you can reach out to the premier, the Minister of Environment and your local MLA.

Let them know we need a water future worthy of the great province of B.C.

This is the final piece in a four-part series prepared by Ecojustice. Learn more about Ecojustice's work on water issues by visiting  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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