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World watching how B.C. wrestles with how to protect drinking water

BY DAN FUMANO, THE PROVINCE SEPTEMBER 1, 2013

As B.C. looks to update its century-old water laws, government sources and experts are looking outside the province for examples of how to move forward.

Likewise, experts elsewhere are watching how B.C. plans to modernize its water laws for the 21st century.

Many feel the BC Water Act update is long overdue

Many feel the BC Water Act update is long overdue

“There’s a real opportunity here for B.C. to go from being behind the rest of North America, to leapfrogging the pack and being a leader on this issue,” said Oliver Brandes, co-director of University of Victoria’s POLI Project on Ecological Governance. “Other people from elsewhere, experts in their fields who are dealing with it, they’re seeing B.C. and seeing the opportunity.”

A Ministry of Environment spokesman said in an email that changes are expected next year, adding “There is much to be learned through a review of leading thought and practices in other jurisdictions as we develop the new Act.”

Here’s a quick look at a few of the lessons B.C. can learn from looking to other parts of the continent.

VERMONT

Before Maude Barlow helped the Vermont government sort out some priorities, she says the state was in a similar position to B.C.

“They found, just like British Columbia, that they had absolutely no protection for their groundwater. Absolutely none. They were giving it away for free to all sorts of bottled water companies were coming in and accessing the local water,” said Barlow, chair of the national advocacy group the Council of Canadians and Canada’s leading water activist.

Barlow has authored three books on global water issues, the latest of which is due out this month. She is internationally known for her work on the issue, and was one of the leaders behind the successful global movement that pushed the United Nations to recognize water as a human right in 2010.

In Vermont, the bottled water companies’ withdrawals from local aquifers caused a “huge backlash,” Barlow said, and she was called in to work with government to consult on how to move forward. She spoke before the state legislature in 2007 and the next year, they unanimously passed a comprehensive groundwater protection program.

The new laws included, among other features, the ability for Vermont government to set access principles, prioritizing water for different uses. In times of shortage, basic daily use such as drinking water comes first. Water for ecosystem protection and for local food production would come next, ahead of industrial uses.

“The good of the whole, in this case Vermonters, in your case British Columbians, takes precedence over the economic demands of a few. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a place for commercial use of water — of course there is, industry needs water. But you’re not going to make it a free-for-all.”

ONTARIO

Following The Province’s report last month on Nestlé drawing B.C. water for free, at least one reader reached out with a concern — if government does begin to regulate groundwater, and charges a corporation like Nestlé for the water they take, does that mean that every B.C. family relying on a well will require a permit and need to pay?

Not necessarily. In Ontario, water users only need to apply for a Permit to Take Water if they draw more than 50,000 litres a day. This applies to groundwater, as well as any lake, river or stream source.

However, permits are not required for water taken for emergency fire fighting, watering of livestock, or private domestic use.

The Council of Canadians advocates for a water management system that gives priority to basic, residential uses, said national water campaigner Emma Lui.

“Residences already pay through taxes or to their water utility company,” said Lui, adding that corporate users such as bottled water companies “should have to pay a hefty user fee for water because their use is entirely consumptive, meaning it is taken and removed from the local watershed.”

CALIFORNIA

Linda Sheehan, director of the Earth Law Centre in California, lives in the San Francisco area. But this year, spent four months on Vancouver Island. She observed that the state of water regulation in B.C. reminded her of her home state — two decades ago.

“B.C. is like 20 years behind us in terms of the path that they’re going on water quality and water rights and such. I can see they’re on the same trajectory that California was,” Sheehan said this week.

Sheehan said in most regards, California’s water regulation is well ahead of B.C.’s. But, she said, we can learn from some of the mis-steps they made while updating water laws decades ago.

In particular, she points to the neglect of groundwater. When the state government updated its legislation regulating uses and reporting of rivers and lakes, the water under the ground was just left off the table.

“To me it’s just so crazy to not to include groundwater, it just makes absolutely no sense,” said Sheehan. “Unless B.C. does that, they’re absolutely going to end up where we are. The rivers are running dry, and the salmon are going extinct as a result.”

Sheehan said some California rivers have been so depleted by diversions that they’ve become too shallow for fish to swim upstream. This summer, thousands of salmon had to be rescued as they flopped around on the rocks.

Sheehan’s main argument is that people in California, B.C., and everywhere else, need a fundamental change in their thinking about water. She said it should be regarded as its own entity, with its own rights, instead of simply a resource that’s there to feed people’s economies or needs.

“It’s kind of like when you’re on the airplane, and they tell you to put your own oxygen mask first, before helping your little kid. Because you have to take care of the waterway first, because the waterway’s taking care of us,” Sheehan said.

“And if we drain the waterway, that’s it. We’re done.”

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