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12th February 2016
Antiquated’ priorities fail to put community needs first

Dan Fumano / The Province
February 11, 2016 08:08 AM

B.C.’s new Water Sustainability Act, expected to come into force soon, has been applauded as an important overhaul and described by the government as “historic,” but a national group is raising concerns about what they call “big gaps” in the act.

A new report, to be released Thursday by the Council of Canadians, says the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) “delivers some gains and positive steps forward, but falls short of what is needed to truly protect water in B.C.”

Emma Lui, the report’s primary author, said: “We’ve been raising these concerns for a long time, and we saw in the public consultation process, other people in B.C. were raising these concerns as well.”

Lui is the water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, an Ottawa-based non-profit that describes itself as “Canada’s leading social action organization.” One of the council’s key concerns with B.C.’s new act, Lui said, is around the issue of prioritizing water rights.

The WSA preserves the system of “First in time, first in right” (FITFIR), a way of prioritizing water rights based on the date of a water licence.

B.C.’s Ministry of Environment website explains: “During times of water scarcity, licences with the earlier priority dates are entitled to take their full allocation of water over the junior licences,” and older licences get priority over newer ones “regardless of the purpose for which the water is used.”

Lui’s report described FITFIR as “an antiquated system,” and a “remnant of the Gold Rush.” She has advocated for prioritizing water rights to put the needs of communities ahead of private interests, corporations and industries.

In an emailed statement, an environment ministry spokesman said: “Government received many comments related to FITFIR during development of the WSA. Some respondents supported continuing the system and some called for change.”

Adopting a new approach other than FITFIR, the ministry spokesman said, “would require more time and effort to administer and represent a greater demand on government resources.” He added: “Replacing FITFIR with an alternative model would take away existing rights. This would be administratively unfair to thousands of existing water rights holders.”

Meanwhile, Oliver Brandes, co-director of the University of Victoria’s POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, said that while the WSA in its current form has “defects,” he is “optimistic about the potential of the act.”

“We’re hopeful some of these defects can be addressed in progressive regulations, updates of the law as needed, but most importantly in how the act is implemented over the longer term,” said Brandes, adding that the WSA “sets us on a path that we urgently need, to deal with emerging water challenges.”

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