B.C. has a water problem

Liard Rivers | BCBusiness
B.C. oil and gas operations used $1.9 million cubic metres of water from Northern B.C.’s Liard River over the first nine months of 2014

B.C.’s water resources are taxed to the limits. New legislation hopes to ease the strain—in no small part by making industry pay more

At the time B.C.’s Water Act was written, Sir Wilfrid Laurier was prime minister and Ty Cobb was still the home-run king. A lot has changed since 1909, of course: B.C.’s population has grown from 350,000 to over 4.6 million, while the level of industrial activity has taken off. Now, climate change is putting further pressure on what the provincial government describes as B.C.’s “most precious resource.”


Canada is No. 3 on the list of countries with the largest freshwater supply, behind Russia and Brazil

Canadian rivers discharge 7% of the world’s renewable water supply: 105,000 cubic metres per second

The average British Columbian uses 490 litres of water per day per person, compared to the Canadian average of 274 litres per day per person, according to Environment Canada

And while, on a global scale, B.C. is water rich, we’re also water hogs. Regions including the Okanagan and the Peace River have seen water resources taxed to the limit by the demands of a thirsty population and industry. For the past several summers, community members in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island have had to transport salmon by trucks up the trickling Cowichan River to save spawning chinook. “This sort of thing, I think, is probably going to happen a lot more frequently—having very dry periods during the summer where surface water resources are threatened because of drought,” says Diana Allen, a professor of hydrogeology at SFU.

Just how much consumer and industrial demand has increased is unknown. The most glaring shortfall of the century-old legislation is the failure to track total freshwater use from both surface water sources—lakes and rivers—and groundwater from beneath the surface. “We currently don’t know how much groundwater is being used,” says Allen. “If you have a piece of the puzzle where you have no idea how much of that resource is currently being used, it’s really difficult to actually manage the water supply.”

With that in mind, the provincial government passed ambitious legislation last year that will begin to track actual water use and help address three key challenges: population growth, climate change and the expansion of B.C.’s natural resource industries. Details are being finalized this year, with the Water Sustainability Act to be phased in beginning in 2016.

The new regulations will flow into every industrial nook and domestic cranny, from tap water to the family farm. Yet it is industry that will see the most significant change, with new rules on groundwater usage, mandatory reporting of usage and likely increased water costs—and this even though industry is not, as far as government knows, the largest user. Limited as they are, provincial statistics show 98 per cent of the surface water allocations are for hydro power generation—though hydro doesn’t consume water but rather returns it to the system. Of the water allocated for so-called consumptive uses, most is for conservation and land improvement; mining and petroleum account for just 0.9 per cent, according to the Ministry of Environment.

While the Business Council of B.C. supports the legislative overhaul, they are concerned about the focus on large-scale industrial users. “In B.C., the natural resource sector attracts a disproportionate amount of attention in water use discussions, even though the cumulative sum of many small users may have as large or a larger impact on water quantity and quality than all of the industrial users,” it said in a 2014 submission to the province.

One sector that will feel the impact of the new rules is B.C.’s nascent oil and gas industry, whose (potentially) exponential expansion is due to hydraulic fracturing: the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals into wells to fracture the rock and release trapped gas. Every jurisdiction has dealt with the quandary of gas industry water use in different ways. Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and dozens of U.S. cities and states have various moratoria on hydraulic fracking, citing among their concerns the high volume of water used, the wastewater that results and the potential contamination of nearby water sources.

B.C., in its new legislation, promises a different approach. “We’re looking to encourage—and industry is doing this now—the use of deep saline groundwater,” says Lynn Kriwoken, director of water protection and sustainability with B.C.’s Ministry of Environment. “We’re currently working with the oil and gas commission and industry on what the management of groundwater looks like.” As an incentive for gas producers to forgo freshwater, the province is pondering an exemption for non-potable saline water from deep below the surface. Not only is that water not drinkable, the saline water table is not connected to ground or surface water, both in heavy demand.

Denise Mullen, director of environment and sustainability for the Business Council, wants a plan that exempts saline water from regulations. The council doesn’t want large cost increases and would like all users to report water use: “If you exempt people from reporting—say, mostly domestic users—you don’t have a complete picture.”