Low and dry: Drought-like conditions expose a wide swath of river bottom near the Seymour reservoir in North Vancouver in 2002.

There’s a desperate need to fix B.C.’s 
water laws. The question is, How?

For an issue that has all the right ingredients of a classic industry-versus-environment policy brawl, there’s some strong consensus in the debate about how B.C. should manage water. But while all sides generally agree that big changes are needed, there’s plenty of debate about what exactly needs to be done.

In late 2009, the B.C. government kicked off a discussion about how to update the B.C. Water Act, which hasn’t had a major overhaul since it was created more than 100 years ago. A draft bill of a new act was supposed to be ready by late 2010. But with recent upheavals in both of B.C.’s major political parties, the file isn’t expected to hit the legislature any time soon.

However, rapid expansion of housing and industry has strained certain water resources nearly to the breaking point, and it’s vital for B.C.’s economy and environment that the Water Act change to adapt, says Oliver Brandes, associate director of UVic’s Polis Project on Ecological Governance. The problem with the current act is that it’s focused on handing out water-use licences to industry, not on protecting water systems, Brandes says; it’s like dishing out slices of pie without having any idea how much pie there is.

“To me it’s not really industry versus environment; it’s short term versus long term,” he says. “It benefits industry, communities and obviously the environmental interests to have functioning watersheds.”

But industry is bristling over one possible solution highlighted in a government discussion paper: environmental flow standards. Such standards would allocate a slice of the pie to the ecosystem first, before other interests get their share, so whenever a business draws water there would always be a portion it can’t touch. Brandes says he supports such a system, adding that it’s common practice in many other countries.

But the idea of a legislated minimum flow is tough to swallow for people whose business plans depend on access to water. Ranchers, for instance, have suffered under an infuriating water-management system for years, says Lee Hesketh, a part-time rancher near Cherryville in the North Okanagan and a stewardship co-ordinator with the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association. 

Ranchers and farmers work with government to get expensive water licences, he says, and many have built up supporting reservoirs and other improvements on their own dime to help protect nearby stream flows. But the water has been overallocated, he says, through no fault of ranchers or growers. And when dry weather threatens the waterways, they can expect visits from federal fisheries officers demanding they shut down their water use, regardless of what their licences say they’re entitled to. And imposing flow standards would make it worse, Hesketh says. The problem is that provincewide standards can’t take into account the vast differences between regions. The rain-soaked north of Vancouver Island has very different water systems than the hot and dry South Okanagan, he points out.

People in the run-of-river power business support this argument. Jackie Hamilton, chair of the hydro committee at the industry group Clean Energy BC, says it’s not feasible for the province to do detailed flow analyses of every river and stream in the province, so any rules demanding that industry maintain certain minimum flows would miss the mark in terms of what a specific stream’s ecosystem really needs. As it happens, existing regulations already force large projects such as run-of-river power stations to abide by flow standards based on detailed assessments of the specific stream that’s being used, she says. This makes general flow standards unnecessary for her industry, she says, adding that she’s been told by water management officials that the provincewide standards proposed in the current Water Act modernization process wouldn’t apply to run-of-river projects. (A spokesperson from the Ministry of Environment was unable to confirm this, although did agree that major projects are already subject to tough standards.)

Instead of having blanket standards in place throughout B.C., Hesketh says, he would like to see a community water-use planning process based on good science, with local managers supported by professional expertise.

Oliver Brandes acknowledges that wide-ranging standards run the risk of being arbitrary, but says the benefits in long-term security far outweigh the costs. “Is it going to be perfect? Probably not,” Brandes concedes. “Is it going to be better than doing nothing? By far.”

Despite these differences, most recognize the urgent need for something to change to keep water systems from collapsing. Hesketh says there’s fear in the ranching industry that regardless of what kind of management system gets put in place, some people’s water rights will have to be clawed back. It’ll be painful, but there seems to be little other choice. In fact, Hesketh sympathizes with the bureaucrats. “I’m glad I’m not having to figure this out,” he says. “Not everyone’s going to be happy with it.”