GROUNDWATER LICENSING IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: “The Water Sustainability Act removed the wild west free-for-all that had prevailed when capturing groundwater under common law was deemed a right,” stated Donna Forsythe, a former civil servant in the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, in an Op-Ed published by the Vancouver Province newspaper and co-authored with Mike Wei and Ben Parfitt (June 2021)


Groundwater licensing is the biggest endeavour the Province of BC has taken on in its water management history. There are an estimated 20,000 historical groundwater wells supplying farms, businesses, industries, utilities, and institutions across the province. Yet, after 5-plus years, a mere 1 in 5 have applied for a water licence. March 1, 2022 is the looming deadline to apply. Now it is a crisis in the making. What will it take to motivate the other 4 in 5 to apply in their own self-interest?

On June 13, 2021, the Vancouver Province published an Op-Ed co-authored by Donna Forsythe, Mike Wei and Ben Parfitt.

Donna Forsythe is a former legislative advisor in the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy and helped draft the Water Sustainability Act. Mike Wei, P. Eng. also worked for the Ministry and was B.C.’s deputy comptroller of water rights from 2004 to 2018. Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Tapped out: As deadline for licences looms, thousands risk losing access to water

“With less than nine months remaining to apply for licences, roughly only 4,000 of an estimated 20,000 non-domestic users have applied. Many of those who have not are farmers, which is bad news for them and for food security in B.C.,” stated Mike Wei.

“Complicating matters, under provincial law a water user’s position in the queue is generally tied to when they apply for their licence. Historical groundwater users who apply for licences before March 1, 2022, will be assigned ‘priority dates’ based on when they first drew groundwater. But those who miss the deadline will lose those earlier dates and end up at the end of the queue, which is a big deal in times of water scarcity,” added Donna Forsythe.

“It’s not hard to see how this could become a flashpoint come next March. A farmer who misses the deadline loses their historic water rights and must stop using the water and apply for a licence. Worse, any earlier applicant — such as a water-bottling company — can obtain rights ahead of the farmer,” concluded Ben Parfitt.

“This unsettling outcome, in our view, has never been adequately conveyed by the provincial government,” the three authors agreed.

To Learn More:

To read the complete Op-Ed, download a copy of Tapped out: As deadline for licences looms, thousands risk losing access to water.

For a fuller understanding of the emerging crisis, download a copy of Living Water Smart in British Columbia: Groundwater Users Put on Notice. This is the second in a set of Primers published by the Partnership for Water Sustainability on groundwater licensing. It elaborates on an ongoing failure to communicate effectively about what is missing in government messaging.

The Primer suggests potential game-changing solutions to create a desired “tidal wave of groundwater licence applications” between today and March 1, 2022. Because people learn through stories and anecdotes, the Primer storyline is built around quotable quotes from these knowledgeable professionals to tell the “story behind the story”.