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11th September 2023
B.C. groundwater licensing delays abound, 7 years after requirement was introduced

Advocate says robust licensing system a matter of fairness for users especially amidst drought

CBC News Posted: Sep 07, 2023 6:00 AM PDT Last Updated: September 7

In July, three years after Cowichan Valley farmer Katy Ehrlich applied to get her farm's well licensed, provincial officials visited her farm.

"They had an order with them that said that we had to stop diverting groundwater for commercial purposes. And we were like shocked," said Ehrlich, who had thought everything was fine with her application for a non-domestic groundwater licence, a requirement under the B.C. Water Sustainability Act (WSA).

The act, which came into effect in 2016, requires groundwater users in the province to get a licence and pay fees for purposes such as irrigation, commercial and industrial use but some experts estimate that less than half of non-domestic well users in B.C. have done so, expressing concerns over delays in the process.

Ehrlich was told there was no record of her having even applied.

She says she applied again and was ordered to stop using the well water on the vegetables, so the farm got a cistern and a costly water delivery by truck from a different well in the same aquifer to keep crops alive.

Eventually, she says, the farm was granted an appeal and allowed to continue using groundwater until the matter is resolved but the entire situation has left her frustrated by the process, and critical of the lengthy delays in getting the licences approved.

'It should be faster'

Mike Wei is a hydrogeologist with decades of experience, often working with the provincial government on its groundwater program. He helped draft the WSA, and has since helped people submit applications for non-domestic groundwater use.

"It's taken some time. Years - a couple of years, two or three years. In my opinion, I think it should be faster than that," said Wei. "Water, in my experience, has tended to not always be the highest priority."

Wei says based on the wait times he's seen, it's possible there's an issue with resourcing or staffing in the department that deals with licence applications.

"Timely decisions are important, because if you don't have timely decisions, you can kind of imagine what will happen.

"People will - will they wait years until they hear back from the government? Or will they just simply say, 'Forget it, I'm just going to not apply and hope they'll never find out'?"

That's one of the concerns for Aaron Hill, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

"Currently there are still, we think, thousands of unlicensed groundwater users who are required to be licensed," he said.

"And that's a problem and we need the government to act on that and get those groundwater users licensed so that we can better manage our groundwater."

According the provincial forestry ministry's website, there are about 20,000 non-domestic groundwater users in B.C. People who use groundwater for their household are not required to get a licence or pay fees.

Wei believes as few as 7,000 businesses or organizations have applied for licences.

A matter of fairness

A member of the ministry of forests communications staff declined a request from CBC News to interview Minister Bruce Ralston.

It also declined to make anyone else available for an interview, and ultimately didn't answer written questions about the number of unlicensed wells in the province.

For Hill, the issue of properly managing watersheds and aquifers with a robust licensing system is a matter fairness for water users, as some are regulated and have restrictions applied in times of drought, while others nearby don't.

But according to Hill, it's also a matter of life and death for the province's ecosystems, particularly as droughts become more severe.

"It's really essential that we keep as much water as possible in our streams and rivers so that we can keep our fish alive," he said.

"The fact is that we are we are in very desperate times right now with unprecedented drought. We have fish being cooked in our creeks from being too hot and creeks drying up, and we have to manage this," he said.

"The province needs to step up their game. They are working to bring users into compliance, but it's not happening fast enough."

With files from Camille Vernet