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31st May 2016
Council of Canadians meets with BC’s Environment Minister on water sustainability

By Emma Lui (water campaigner for the Council of Canadians)
May 26, 2016

Last Tuesday evening, the Victoria chapter of the Council of Canadians held its Annual General Meeting. I attended and gave a presentation on the Council’s concerns about B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act (WSA). More than 30 people attended and we had a lively discussion about the importance of water and concerns about mining, fracking, drought, Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) and other threats to clean water. This is the fourth event I have spoken at about the Council of Canadians report Water Rush: Why B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act fails to protect water. Other events were in Kelowna, Kamloops and Nelson (Blewett).

The next day, I met with the BC’s Minister of Environment Mary Polak as well as the Assistant Deputy Minister Kaaren Lewis and Manager of Watershed Sustainability Ian Graeme. The Minister called the meeting to discuss concerns the Council of Canadians raised in Water Rush and the government’s reassessment of water rates.

I asked about the applications that are being submitted for groundwater licences, the licensing process and whether the information would be made public. The licensing process should include an assessment of aquifer data, how many people draw from the watershed, projections of future community demands, environmental flows and other factors that affect water availability. The government recently flip-flopped on whether environmental flows – which would ensure there is enough water in lakes and rivers to keep aquatic ecosystems healthy – would be considered for the estimated 20,000 groundwater users. The WaterWealth Project has assessed provincial groundwater observation wells in the Fraser Valley and found that 13 of the 26 wells had data gaps in recent years of a hundred days or more. One well in Langley, B.C. – Minister Polak’s riding - has no data since April 2010.

The Minister discussed wanting to get ground water users in the system, collect data and that the plan was to make all the data available to the public. Ontario has created an Environmental Registry where all applications for Permits to Take Water are posted and all trigger a public comment period. This type of registry for water licences in BC is critical for communities to engage in decisions that affect water. The Council of Canadians urges the Ministry of Environment to immediately post water applications for the public as they come in.

There is no “expiry date” for permits; water permits will be for an indefinite period of time. The Minister assured me that the government will have the power to revoke permits or restrict water takings if they needed to. But with warnings of drought this summer and increasing drought in the coming years, the Ministry of Environment should be issuing shorter permits of one to five years to be responsible and cautious in water management.

In Water Rush, the Council flags how water licensing rules and provincial water management decision making can be challenged under trade agreements. The Canadian Centre Policy of Alternatives has shown that two-thirds of NAFTA challenges were against environmental regulations. Investor State Dispute Settlement Clauses (ISDS) found in trade agreements like NAFTA, the TPP and CETA give corporations power to sue governments if water, environmental, health or other regulations are implemented and affect a company’s profit. Canadian companies like Abitibi Bowater (now Resolute Forest Products) and Lone Pine Resources incorporated in Delaware and used NAFTA’s Chapter 11 to sue their own Canadian government.

Many groups including the Council of Canadians have raised concerns about the First In Time, First In Right (FITFIR) model which currently governs surface water and now will govern groundwater. The FITFIR system gives priority to those who used water in a region first. During times of water scarcity, it cuts access off to newer users. I raised our concerns about FITFIR and Minister said the WSA will use a "modified FITFIR" system. She said during times of scarcity people will have access to water and bottled water, for example, will be low on the list. I asked the Minister and others to clarify where the list was. The only prioritization list that exists is in the WSA is Section 22 (7) which prioritizes water use if the date of first use is the same date. Manager of Water Sustainability Ian Graeme clarified that they were referring to Section 22 (10 & 11) which gives households access to 250 litres of water though does not prioritize the various water uses. Different water uses must be prioritized. During times of drought, as the WaterWealth Project has pointed out, there is no guarantee that 250 litres is going to be there for every household.

The Water Sustainability Act asserts “crown ownership” of water. I raised the missing principles of the human right to water and water as a public trust as well as the need to recognize Indigenous title and water rights which First Nations, residents and groups called for during the public consultation process. The Minister said the government does not recognize Indigenous title and water rights. She said she wants to bring First Nations into the system and make sure their groundwater use is included. Indigenous communities are undisputedly “first in time” users. It will be interesting to see how the government recognizes Indigenous communities’ date of first use.

We ended our meeting with a discussion about the government’s review on water bottling. It is good the government is keeping its commitment of reviewing water rates. We urge the government to review all water rates and hold a public consultation process on this. Still, communities must explore larger questions on water sustainability in addition to pricing. Communities must be involved in prioritizing water uses and decide whether they want bottled water, fracking and other water intensive industries to be draw from local watersheds. Water must be recognized as a human right and public trust. And Indigenous title and water rights must be recognized. Communities must continue to call for these principles to be included in the WSA in order to ensure water security in B.C. and across Indigenous territories.