The provincial deadline for non-domestic groundwater users to apply for a licence for their wells, or risk losing access to the water, is fast approaching.
As of March 1, 2022, unlicensed users will not be recognized under the “first in time, first in right” principle written into BC’s Water Sustainability Act. In real terms that means long-established but unlicensed farm, ranch, commercial, and industrial groundwater users would be drawing water unlawfully, subject to fines and shut-offs, and could have their right to water usurped by newer, licensed groundwater users.
Despite these consequences, fewer than 5000 of the over 20,000 groundwater users in BC have applied for a licence, says Oliver Brandes, project lead at the POLIS Water Sustainability Project at the University of Victoria.
That’s only slightly higher numbers than in late 2019, when the Sentinel reported experts were already warning the licensing rollout was a “huge mess” stalled out at around 15% of users in compliance. Back then, the low numbers had forced the provincial government to extend their original 2019 deadline to 2022.
Well licensing is essential for the province to gauge groundwater extraction, which enables water management strategies to protect aquifers from depletion and to protect aquatic life against low stream flows in times of drought.
“If you can’t even regulate or manage groundwater, people begin to lose confidence in government as a manager of what is clearly a public resource. You get the classic tragedy of the Commons, with everybody either hoarding or doing their own thing. The salmon streams suffer, downstream users suffer, Indigenous users’ rights are affected.”
Brandes says there are several reasons why users still aren’t registering their wells: Garden variety procrastination, ineffective messaging from the province that has left some small-scale groundwater users “blissfully unaware” the deadline applies to them or unconvinced that licensing is a necessity, and a faction who believe they have an inherent right to pump groundwater that supersedes the common good, and don’t want government interference.
In a March 2021 letter to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development, Brandes and Rosie Simms, a policy researcher and project manager at POLIS, advised the BC government to streamline the licence application process, prioritize groundwater use hotspots (such as the Okanagan, Southeast Vancouver Island, and the Lower Mainland), allocate more staff to the file, and conduct compliance checks to send a clear signal on the consequences of non-compliance.
According to a public opinion poll released in October by the POLIS and the Real Estate Foundation of BC, water is now the top environmental issue in the province, with two in three British Columbians now saying they are concerned about the potential for a major water crisis in their community in the next few years.
Failure to institute a working groundwater licensing regime, Brandes says, will call into question BC’s legitimacy to regulate water use.
“This government has made a lot of very strong and good commitments around watershed security … to modernize land use planning, salmon strategy, et cetera. If you can’t even regulate or manage groundwater, you can’t do any of those things, and people begin to lose confidence in government as a manager of what is clearly a public resource. You get the classic tragedy of the Commons, with everybody either hoarding or doing their own thing. The salmon streams suffer, downstream users suffer, Indigenous users’ rights are affected.”
But regardless of the stalled rollout, Brandes says concern over water as a scarce resource is mounting in BC after this summer’s drought and heat – a scenario surely to be repeated in the years ahead.