A motion requesting the province cease licensing groundwater for commercial water bottling and bulk water exports was unanimously passed by the central Vancouver Island regional district of Strathcona on January 24.
Currently, the motion applies only to the Strathcona Regional District, but will be heard again at an April meeting of the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities (AVICC). If it is passed there, the motion will become island-wide, and again move upward to be considered as a unified request by the Union of British Columbia Municipalities.
There is potential for all BC municipalities and districts to send an unambiguous message that would “put huge pressure on the provincial government to change the Water Sustainability Act (WSA),” said Brenda Leigh, Strathcona Regional District Area D director, and architect of the motion.
“There’s 29 regional districts in British Columbia, and a lot of them have been impacted by corporate extraction of their water supply,” said Leigh. “This is very important because the commodification of water in Canada means that we’re putting our water sources at risk.”
A 2018 struggle between the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource & Rural Development (FLNRORD), and the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD), highlighted the friction between regional districts and the BC government over groundwater extraction for profit. The dispute began when FLNRORD approved a license for the commercial sale of groundwater, without public notification and against the wishes of the CVRD and K’omoks First Nation. Public opposition to the license was formidable, and the CVRD ultimately denied a zoning amendment necessary for the water to be processed, effectively rendering the license unusable.
Leigh said her motion is rooted in general principle, and not in reaction to the CVRD dispute.
Changes to the WSA would negate the need for district-level efforts to control commercial water extraction with zoning decisions, said Leigh. “First things first – we need to get the province on our side, and make sure they’re protecting our water. They have the power to do that.”
Leigh was critical of the “first in time, first in right” principle guiding groundwater licensing in BC. “First in time, first in right, is about giving licenses to corporations to bottle the water, or sell it by bulk, and that is putting our aquifers at risk unless the local government knows how it’s going to impact their citizens,” she said.
Some areas in Leigh’s district rely totally on groundwater. In recent summers, drought conditions in August have forced the district to tap emergency reservoirs. She anticipates climate change will exacerbate the problem in the future. “It’s sort of a perfect storm,” she said.