Note to Reader:

The water world in British Columbia quietly but forever changed on February 29, 2016 when the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) became law and with it, groundwater licensing came into effect. Under the law, some 20,000 businesses and land owners who had been using groundwater for non-domestic (or non-household) purposes before the WSA came into effect must apply for a licence.

Four years later, many of these existing groundwater users are still either hesitant or unaware of the need to apply for a water licence. In fact, a mere 15% of users have complied to date. With the deadline for compliance only two years away, a momentum-changer is urgently needed say Mike Wei and David Slade, one that will galvanize groundwater users into action.  

In the article below, this experienced duo provide context to inform a provincial call to action. In teaming up to alert our province-wide readership about a looming problem, Mike Wei and David Slade blend the perspectives of regulator and contractor, respectively. They offer a balanced and pragmatic view of groundwater licensing realities in British Columbia.

The Partnership for Water Sustainability is assisting the provincial government with implementation of groundwater licensing through development and maintenance of the BC Agriculture Water Calculator, an online tool. This is the most popular of the array of online provincial tools available to the public. 

Managing Water as One Resource in British Columbia: “Not obtaining a groundwater licence and hoping that government will never find out is doomed thinking,” say Mike Wei, British Columbia’s former deputy comptroller of water rights, and David Slade, water well drilling contractor

In British Columbia, surface water and groundwater are now managed under the same regulatory regime

“The new reality is government is exercising (long over-due) oversight on groundwater use because in many regions of BC stress on the water resource has reached a point where water supply is reaching critically low levels,” state Mike Wei and David Slade.

“Government can no longer watch from the sidelines and has implemented licensing to protect these areas. Government’s oversight of groundwater use also extends to less water-stressed areas of BC to ensure similar problems don’t arise.”

A Seniority-Based System

“Existing groundwater users are being given an unprecedented opportunity in that government is allowing their historic use and the date of their first use to be recognized in the water licence. In a seniority-based (First-in-Time, First-in-Right) water rights system, this is huge!

“While not unanimously popular, the government realized the recognition of historical use of existing groundwater users is fair to those users. However, this opportunity is only available if the existing groundwater user applies before March 1, 2022.”

Why is compliance so low?

The hesitation of groundwater users to apply for a water licence seems to reflect a combination of factors, the authors suggest. They have identified five likely considerations:
  1. fear of increased government oversight;
  2. fear that their use can be restricted and that a licence will be denied;
  3. increased operating costs, including paying annual water rental fees to government;
  4. not understanding the benefits of a licence to their business or land and the time-limited opportunity that is theirs; and
  5. not understanding the dire consequences of not obtaining a licence to divert and use groundwater.

“The apparent lack of understanding of what they are putting at risk through inaction is puzzling. And then there are also many who are not even aware of the licensing requirement, let alone consider it,” observe Mike Wei and David Slade.

“Date of first use is of utmost importance because many stream sources and groundwater sources in BC exist in hydraulic connection. If a stream is suffering from low flows, a groundwater user may be asked to temporarily alter, restrict, or even stop diverting and using water.

“By recognizing the existing groundwater user’s date of first use, the user has seniority over more junior licensees diverting from the stream and the risk of an existing groundwater user being ordered to temporarily alter, restrict, or even stop diverting and using water is lessened.”

Worry about not being granted a licence is largely unfounded

“Yes, even with the recognition of date of first use government may, in certain areas where water is stressed, set operational or monitoring requirements in a licence to address conflicts or problems when they occur. In extra-ordinary circumstances, a government decision maker (the engineer, water manager, even the Minister) may even order licensees to temporarily alter, restrict, or even stop diverting and using water (to avoid negative impacts on the water resource, the aquatic ecosystem, or to other more senior users),” the authors explain.

One Water, One Set of Annual Water Rental Fees

“And yes, groundwater users will now have to pay annual water rental fees. However, the water rental rates are exactly the same as for users who divert water from streams, so they are not out of line with water rates that are already in place.   In addition, the rental rates are low and should be affordable to anyone who runs a business or owns land. Much of the resistance may be that all of this is foreign to the existing groundwater user who are now in this new reality.”

The Exception to the Rule

“The worry of some existing groundwater users about not being granted a licence (if the existing user applies before March 1, 2022) is largely unfounded. The one situation that is for certain that would prevent an existing groundwater user from getting a licence is if they were withdrawing such large amounts after 1996 that they should have undergone an Environmental Assessment Review but didn’t (this should be a lesson to those who think avoiding the law works).  The vast majority of existing water users should be granted a license.”

The New Normal Explained

“So here is the thing: groundwater licensing will mean government exercising oversight on groundwater use and users paying annual water rental fees – that is the new normal. But for existing groundwater users to not apply and give up their advantage of their date of first use is something that, in our opinion, does not seem entirely logical.”

Don’t Delay, Apply Now

“If an existing groundwater user applies after March 1, 2022, they will be viewed as a completely new user and that seniority will be gone! In many watersheds where the streams are now fully recorded (no more licences being issued), the chance of an existing user getting a licence applying after March 1, 2022 may not even be possible – imagine how that would impact the business or land owner?

“It may not seem like it, but we have entered a new reality. A reality of no return. Existing groundwater users need to realize this, so they can do the right (and smart) thing and apply for a licence prior to March 1, 2022. Not obtaining a groundwater licence and hoping that government will never find out is doomed thinking,” emphasize Mike Wei and David Slade.

What If……

“What if a business or land owner decides to just keep using the water because they think the risk of being found out is low? Let’s ask three questions,” state the authors.

“In a few years’ time, don’t you think potential property buyers will be looking to see if a water licence is attached to the property or business they are interested in (they do in the western USA)? How attractive would a property or business be without a water licence?

“Do you think government will not find out, especially in water stressed areas? Government was lax on checking compliance in the past because they only licensed water from streams (and didn’t focus on groundwater use or unauthorized use from streams). Now that licensing of water use also applies to groundwater, it’s our belief that unauthorized use will be much less tolerated than in the past.

“Is it worth the risk? Especially in water stressed areas where if you were found out, the government would have to do something and the law is crystal clear on this one – one cannot divert and use water without a licence. Would a business or land owner want that unexpected stoppage of water use?”