B.C. government failing to register groundwater users, say critics

Previously, the law had only applied to surface water, like rivers and lakes. That had left B.C. with a loophole where someone denied a licence to get surface water — perhaps because there wasn’t enough water from a nearby river, or it would harm the environment — could simply drill a well on the shore nearby and pump unlimited groundwater away without penalty.

The law originally had a deadline of February 2019, with anyone not registered to lose their priority and potentially be cut off. But after low sign-up, the law was extended to March 2022.

Of the 4,000 applications received so far, the government has only processed 1,000. With an estimated 20,000 non-domestic groundwater users in B.C., it means the actual number of registered users so far is roughly five per cent, with fewer than two years left to register.

Forests Minister Doug Donaldson, who oversees the law, said he realizes government has not done enough.

“We have some work to do, no doubt about it,” he said. “We’ll be boosting efforts.”

The government is now trying social media marketing and other advertising campaigns, and has waived the $250 one-time application fee, said Donaldson.

Liberal critic Mary Polak, who was environment minister when the legislation passed in 2015, said the current government has had three years to figure out the issue and has failed.

It’s particularly important, said Polak, because the law allows government to control water usage in times of drought and scarcity.

B.C. has a “first in time, first in right” system of water rights, which has existed for a century and gives the oldest water licences — which can date back to the gold rush days in the mid-1800s — first access to groundwater. That has meant, in some cases, municipal water sources have fallen behind commercial interests in priority.

The 2015 legislation built in discretion for government to elevate the basic water uses for human and aquatic licenses above the dates of licenses in a drought or emergency. Having all the users of groundwater registered was seen as a key step toward knowing how much water is being used, and how to prioritize it when flows lower to critical levels.

VICTORIA — Only 20 per cent of people in B.C. who use wells to get their water have bothered to register under the province’s new mandatory groundwater law.

The low enrolment, which comes four and a half years after B.C. passed landmark reforms on water sustainability, undermines the province’s attempts to track and prioritize who is drawing from aquifers and groundwater sources across the province, said Green MLA Sonia Furstenau.

“Because we’re in a time of climate change and potential real impacts to our water supplies, whether it’s drought, which is a very serious risk, we want to know how much water is being used,” said Furstenau.

“We want to have an idea of the water capacity in the different parts of the province so that … if we’re in a real crisis and government has to make decisions on the kind of hierarchy of protection you need to implement for water use.”

Any person or company with a well that draws groundwater for non-domestic use (including agricultural, industrial, commercial and institutional use) must register with the province and pay a nominal annual fee, according to legislation passed in 2015 by the previous Liberal government, which was widely praised by environmental groups. The only exception is for people who have a well strictly for personal household use.

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