An Ocean of Troubles: Water Management in BC

British Columbia has water problems.

Does that sound crazy? After all, we’re the Wet-coast, constantly complaining about the rain and surrounded by insane amounts of freshwater. And yet it’s true. The Province published an article this month listing 8 surprising facts about BC’s water resources. They can be boiled down to 3 main points:

  1. BC is suffering from a drastic shortfall in information about and supervision of our water resources.
  2. Because of this lack of supervision, corporations such as Nestlé have been able to gain access to our water resources without needing to properly compensate the province and affected communities.
  3. People living in the province are being adversely affected in different ways because of insufficient access to good quality water and environmental damage caused by the lack of oversight previously mentioned.

Point 1 is for the most part uncontested. The current Water Act became law in the year 1909. 104 years later, the Water Sustainability Act is soon going to be introduced into the legislature by the governing Liberals. The Ministry of Environment hopes that it will bridge the existing gaps (some might say chasms) in the way BC deals with water resources. For example, while other provinces charge fees for water use by businesses, no such regulation exists in BC. Moreover, companies need not provide any information to communities which may be affected by business activities, be they reserves or municipalities. Groundwater is another issue which this Act will need to address – that’s the water which well-users (including yours truly) depend on. That water is part of different watersheds which can vary from small to very large in size. Although different organizations do exist for individual watersheds – organizations which are essential for integration into whatever framework may arise – the state of groundwater as a whole in BC isunknown. These watersheds play an important role in the broader ecological systems and their state also tells us about the health of rivers and wildlife such as salmon. Finally, sanitation has been problematic even in Vancity itself. Each year, rain causes sewage to flow from water treatment plants into the Burrard inlet and Strait of Georgia. Although diluted, accumulation could certainly lead to health and environmental problems in future, if it is not already doing so unmonitored.

Point 2 may come as a surprise to many BC residents, particularly those in the GVRD and Fraser Valley.  Vice recently revealed that the BC government is allowing Nestlé  to extract millions of liters of groundwater from the municipality of Hope’s water table in the Fraser Valley – enough to fill 107 Olympic swimming pools each year. That water gets sold back to us in plastic bottles. Although Nestlé does volunteer some information, it is in no way obliged to inform surrounding communities about its activities. Some minor regulations aside, there is no limit to how much they can withdraw. As Nestlé does, so may other corporations. If the Act doesn’t fix these problems, the systems which depend on water tables being sustainably managed may find themselves thrown off balance – that involves wildlife, rivers, agriculture, and residents living in BC. The State of Vermont down south has been faced with this issue recently as well, causing them to “declare water to be a public trust”. Vermont and BC are only the first examples of an issue which is already becoming worldwide and will become far more public than it is now as resources become more and more depleted.

Point 3 may be the biggest shocker of all. After all, in a province with this much water, how can there be people who don’t have enough? And yet, see the case of the Toquaht First Nations reserve, which recently ended a decade-long boil-water advisory. First Nations reserves are especially hard-hit by this crisis, having less access to infrastructure than the municipalities of the lower mainland, where most of the population resides. The Province’s report states that at any given time, such advisories may affect “as many as 500 communities.” This, in the Wet-coast. Environmental damage occurs not only in the Burrard inlet because of sewage problems. Metro Vancouver is one of two areasexamined in a Fraser Institute report on the need for improved water monitoring. The other is a river lying near Alberta’s tar sands. Think that one over very carefully. The implications for health and safety and the future expenses which continuing the current practices may incur are alarming.

Clearly, it is in the interests of British Columbians to consider the future of our magnificent water resources. The Water Sustainability Act needs to be examined by qualified and experienced non-profits, universities, experts in the fields of water management, environmental economists, and those in government responsible for maintaining these resources. Furthermore it must take into account the diverse needs of poorer and rural communities, urban centers, First Nations, and also businesses which depend on water. After all, not everyone using these resources is a giant food conglomerate – BC farms depend on our water for irrigation. In the long term, more sustainable farming practices must also examine water usage as a key component. With these goals in mind, it is essential for the information gathering to be as decentralized as possible, based on the principle of “centralize nothing that can be done as well or better locally”. This will ensure that information is as accurate as possible and that recommendations consider the varied needs of the population. As a final point, future valuation of water must be addressed. Subsidies for the agricultural sector and concern for the “right to water” has caused water to be highly undervalued on the one hand; the possibility for abuse when water becomes privatized has to be addressed on the other. The fact remains, however, that water must be properly valued for any sustainable policies concerning usage to be implemented, and economic concerns factor into this. We have ignored this issue for far too long, and it is essential that partisanship be placed aside in exchange for a scientific approach to water safety and infrastructure and policies which focus on sensible and sustainable governance in future. Anything less may well cause the passage of the Water Sustainability Act to bring the issue to a close prematurely, until it surges back because of medical, economic, or environmental disaster.

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