Bill 18 – 2014: The Water Sustainability Act is now entering third reading. This is an historic piece of legislation that completely overhauls the 1909 Water Act and now includes groundwater regulation. This is a welcome piece of legislation that I am pleased to support. Below is the text of my address at second reading.
I would like to start my speech the exact same way that the member left off her previous speech, which is offering my congratulations to the minister for tabling what I believe is a historic bill for the province of British Columbia.
We’ve been blessed here in British Columbia with some of the best access to fresh water compared to any other jurisdiction in the world. Our abundance of clean, fresh water has meant that the pressures to monitor and regulate its usage have taken much longer to manifest themselves. We’ve not felt the immediate pressures that some jurisdictions have, in which failure to regulate water usage meant the difference between life and death.
Yet what is clear is that from an economic, social, environmental and cultural perspective, how we manage our water will have significant impacts on the current generation as well as future generations, particularly in light of the climate change as outlined in the recently released Working Group II report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
To quote the West Coast Environmental Law: “Water and how we treat our water is one of those fundamental issues that touches on so much of who we are, what we do and how we build our economy.” Our failure to better regulate our water usage today will have ripple effects and potentially significant consequences for future generations — if not across our province, certainly in specific regions.
After more than 100 years I think we can all agree in this House that updated legislation is long overdue. The original Water Act from 1909 was written for a different time with different issues facing our water resources. It is ill-suited for the current area of climate change pressures, rising competition over usage and increasing importance of managing our water supplies in such a way that ensures opportunity and sustainability for future generations.
The new Water Sustainability Act represents an important step forward to meet many of these challenges, and I’m pleased to say that I find much to support in the many innovative environmental measures proposed to manage our water resources.
In particular, the incorporation of the long-promised regulation of groundwater is an important addition. The inclusion of a system for licensing and regulating groundwater users helps to fill a glaring policy gap that was allowing a number of industries to profit from our Crown resources, with no system to ensure the sustainability of their use. In addition, British Columbia did not receive adequate compensation for the use of this resource.
I’m also encouraged that the government chose to include a number of ecological considerations in the decision-making process about water use. Specifically, innovative components that include the water sustainability plans, water objectives, the protection of sensitive streams, environmental flow needs and mitigation measures are all very positive.
I look forward to examining exactly how these provisions will operate in greater detail at the committee stage. Here I want to note my support for the fact that they were not only considered but included in the bill.
I also think the government’s decision to sever the water pricing discussion from this act is a very good one. As the ministry has no doubt seen, there are a great variety of positions on water pricing, and a separate engagement process will allow all interested stakeholders to provide the ministry and the minister with their perspective.
My own view is that the province should seriously look at differential pricing for water based, in part, on how that water is being used. Some guidance could be taken from the bill before us today, particularly in regards to ensuring the beneficial use and aligning the differential pricing with the “water objectives” of a given region. In general I’m supportive of the process the government has initiated to solicit feedback on water pricing, and I look forward to discussing this aspect at a later day.
As population grows and the direct impact of climate change on local weather is felt with increasing frequency and intensity, the sustainable management of our water resources will become more important.
Without a doubt, there are many positive aspects in this bill pertaining to the determination of “critical environmental flow thresholds.” However, it remains unclear to me whether government possesses the level of in-house scientific understanding required to properly manage our water resources, particularly our groundwater supplies.
As we’ve seen recently in California, climate change can have massive impacts on water supply. For example, we can expect precipitation to increasingly fall in the form of rain instead of snow, leading to changes in snowpack and water availability throughout the year. This is not an issue of water availability but of water storage for our surface water access. This, in turn, could have significant impacts on groundwater recharge and needs to be accounted for in the regulations that will govern groundwater withdrawal.
I’m also uncertain about the merits of continuing with the first-in-time, first-in-right priority for waters rights, as mentioned by the member for Stikine. My view is that this system is also outdated and needs updating and is potentially contradictory to many of the sustainability provisions that this bill puts in place. I look forward to unpacking the reasoning behind the continuing use of this system further at committee stage.
Finally, my main concern with regards to this bill concerns the government’s ability to effectively implement it. I’m left wondering if the government currently possesses and will continue to possess the necessary resources and internal capacity to enforce many of the provisions in this bill.
The overall downsizing of the public service is starting to cause alarm bells to go off in certain areas, especially with regards to available scientific expertise and enforcement. Cuts in the scientific capacity of government will have a negative effect on its ability to manage its natural resources. This comes at a time when the stresses that are placed on our resources have never been more diverse and more complicated. I hope that we can include a discussion on this important topic as the bill moves through committee stage.
In summary, Bill 18 provides a broad framework for a new water management system in British Columbia. However, many of the details are left to regulations that have yet to be written, and so, ultimately, the overall success of this bill will be judged once these regulations become public. I believe it’s essential for the government to continue to offer British Columbians an opportunity to provide feedback as the regulations are developed.
Finally, as I began, I’d like to finish by congratulating the minister for tabling this historic bill. I very much look forward to working with her going forward to make sure that this bill lives up to its full potential.