Water Sustainability Plans

The proposed Water Sustainability Act contains a more specific policy idea, Water Sustainability Plans.  These plans are something of an update and expansion of the Water Management Plans enabled under the current Water Act (www.bclaws.ca).

A Water Management Plan is potentially a powerful tool to enable communities in a watershed to develop a legislatively recognized and enforceable plan that can require much stronger restrictions on water allocation than exist without a plan.  However, the planning process, whereby affected parties in the area to be covered by the plan must agree on a plan, has so far not lead to any plans which have been approved by the Lieutenant Governor in Council. This is the requirement for a plan to come into force.

It doesn’t take much thought to realize that the most appropriate management unit for water is the watershed. While figuring out the appropriate boundary for the watershed may be complicated by the fact that groundwater and surface water don’t always move the same, the concept remains. In physical terms, the impacts of decisions made by one water user in a watershed are felt elsewhere in the watershed. Water used upstream is not available downstream. Water polluted upstream has its impacts downstream. The best way to manage a watershed is therefore about managing these interconnected impacts in such a way that the greatest good is realized.

It is also pretty obvious that those who live in a watershed are those who directly reap the benefits and endure the consequences of decisions made in the watershed. The ‘greatest good’ is therefore a question of finding that way of managing the watershed so that the overall benefits are as large as possible and shared among those in the watershed in a way that is fair and acceptable to all. Often these benefits and consequences are known only to those who experience them, and they may be very difficult to describe in a way that enables a calculation of tradeoffs. What is required therefore is a dialog among those in a watershed to identify what is the best way to manage the watershed in the interest of all. This dialog also must continue, as experience teaches us about impacts that we didn’t previously realize, and management needs to respond to this evolving understanding of the watershed.

I think that there is an awareness of these facts that is evidenced by the public engagement that has accompanied the Water Act Modernization. I think it is also frighting for those who make long term investments (e.g. mines, mills, farms, property developments, …). A flexible, adaptive plan that responds to changes in both scientific information and public values introduces uncertainty, something those who make long term investments don’t want. It is not surprising therefore that those with such long term investments at risk won’t be seriously interested in a dialog where they are not assured up front that their interests are protected, or if not protected, that what they may gain from participating is more than any adverse consequences on their investments.

If a Water Management Plan creates uncertainty for large investors, and if that plan won’t be developed unless all the affected parties are on side, then the best thing for a large investor to do is to stay out of the process. Optics may demand attending, but that is all. It is probably not unfair to say that this is why there are so few approved Water Management Plans in the province. Does the new Water Sustainability Act, and the proposed Water Sustainability Plans, change this?

There is one policy proposal that may add some impetus for people in a watershed to work together, Area-based Regulation. The Water Sustainability Act proposes to enable implementation of additional restrictions on water allocation and use in areas where there are particular concerns. Perhaps the threat that Victoria may decide itself how to deal with emerging concerns in a watershed may lead those in that watershed to work together. In other contexts the threat of government action has encouraged interested parties to work together were previously some of those interests were happy to let the status quo continue.

One large issue that is mentioned in the proposal is financing Water Sustainability Plans. The process of negotiation will be time consuming and expensive. Implementing the plan will also be costly, both at the start and likely on an ongoing basis. If a Water Sustainability Plan has within it a way to collect additional resources, then there may be a prize large enough that everyone in the watershed wants to play.

For example, suppose that a Water Sustainability Plan was being contemplated that would create a Watershed Sustainability Committee. This committee would be charged with monitoring water levels and protecting environmental flows. It would have the authority to trigger additional restrictions on water use, such as those in the Fish Protection Act, in order to protect those environmental flows. The committee would be made up of representatives from the watershed, with First Nations members having key decision making positions. If irrigators are the largest water users in the watershed, and most likely to suffer should the restrictions be applied, they likely won’t support the contemplated plan. However, suppose that the committee was able to levy a property tax on residents in the watershed. Part of these revenues were used to help irrigators increase their water use efficiency. Further, some of the revenues were used to maintain a reserve fund, to make payments to irrigators in those situations where their water use was restricted. Now irrigators will both receive help to reduce their water use and will not suffer financially when their use needs to be restricted.

There are probably a range of ways that a Water Sustainability Plan can be implemented so that all affected parties are better off with the plan than without. However, one key element is that there be a revenue generating mechanism included which creates a means to support those who suffer the most from changing their water use. This funding needs to be sustainable, rather than vulnerable to changing political priorities in Victoria. Ideally, the revenue is generated within the watershed, to remain in the watershed. If Water Sustainability Plans can’t be created with the tools to ensure everyone in the watershed is better off with the plan, then it is unlikely everyone in the watershed will want to be part of the plan.

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