A proposed Water Sustainability Act would give government the teeth to deal with groundwater the same way it deals with surface water, said B.C.’s Minister of Environment Mary Polak while visiting the 141 Mile Ranch Wednesday afternoon.
“We want to focus on making sure we have the right framework in place so we have good control over who is using what so it’s fair,” Polak said while sitting around the kitchen table with ranch owners Cliff and Jo Hinsche and their son Garrett.
“We want to make sure we’re not causing people, who have been responsible, to suddenly have a cost or have something that doesn’t work on the ground,” Polak said of the act.
Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett, who had arranged the meeting, also invited Mayor Kerry Cook and city CAO Darrell Garceau to attend.
“The minister wanted to speak with a long-time rancher who uses water and who understands the issues,” Barnett said of the reason for arranging the meeting with the Hinsches.
Cliff said he’s been ranching for more than 65 years and the water license for his ranch was established in 1863.
The ranch has a big water storage system. They turn it on when they need water, and shut it off when they don’t, he said.
Jo insisted the government must listen to the agricultural community.
“We are not going to use more water than we need because we need it in the fall, we need it in the spring, so we don’t just let it run away,” she said.
Polak said specifically the new act will try to protect stream health and aquatic environments. It will consider water in land-use decisions, regulate and protect groundwater, regulate water use during times of scarcity and improve security, water use efficiency and conservation.
It will also aim to measure and report large scale water use and provide a range of governance approaches.
“We always wonder why all these rules and regulations are made by people who don’t actually know what’s going on,” Jo said. “When you come out and talk with us and people who are using the water, you will have a better understanding.”
It’s the ranchers who have to live with all the rules and regulations, Jo added.
Deputy minister of environment Lynn Kriwoken, touring with Polak, said aside from the coffee table conversations which she thinks are the best forum, the ministry met with the B.C. Agriculture Council and the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association.
In rural B.C. there’s a big problem with water in subdivisions, Barnett said.
“The approving officer says, you have to go prove water on that subdivision,” Barnett said. “They may say they’ll approve that subdivision as long as there is a well on every single lot.”
There is no authority to investigate how much water exists and that’s a huge issue, she added.
The agricultural community has told government it’s fine with reporting water use, but is not willing to metre it because it’s too expensive, Polak said.
Polak also said the act would help when there are conflicts over who gets what water and that First Nations wouldn’t be treated any differently under that act, unless they are in treaty negotiations.
And local governments could set up their own rules around water consumption, government wouldn’t stop that, she added.
“We’ve been to a few towns where people want to metre their water and charge for it. We won’t affect any of that.”
The focus of the act is to make sure the water is being managed properly so everyone gets the share they are entitled to and that if there’s an emergency situation the right priorities are in place and can be implemented, Polak said.
In the new year, once the regulations are finalized, the government will tour the province to discuss water fees and rates.
“Up until now the charges have all been based on helping us administer what we do,” Polak said. “It hasn’t been intended to bring in money. It only brings in about $7 million a year. It’s peanuts for government.”
Public can weigh in on the proposed act by going to http://engage.gov.bc.ca/watersustainabilityact/.