Working together for British Columbia’s watersheds

by Rosie Simms

British Columbia is entering a new freshwater reality. From consecutive years of droughts and floods, to contaminated drinking water sources and record-breaking low flows in streams and rivers, fresh water issues are top-of-mind in the province.

Ecosystems and communities are grappling with the consequences. During the summer of 2015, several areas of the province saw stream flows drop to historically low levels or nearly run dry, leaving fish populations stranded and in distress. On the Coldwater River, conditions were so dry that the Province had to issue water use restrictions under the Fish Protection Act to leave enough water for coho, chinook and steelhead to migrate upstream. Low flows and restrictions put pressure on B.C.’s agricultural and ranching sector—a critical part of our economy which accounts for about 75 per cent of total water demand in the Nicola region.

Photo by Jens Wieting

Photo by Jens Wieting

The status quo approach to managing and governing water is not adequate to deal with these complex emerging challenges—communities are responding to crises instead of making preparations to adapt to new realities. In recent public opinion research, 93 per cent of British Columbians said that water is our most precious natural resource, and 74 per cent believe that B.C’s water is managed poorly or very poorly. Communities are clearly signaling that new approaches to managing and governing water are needed.

Fortunately, British Columbia has a wealth of opportunities and momentum to do things better, including a new provincial water law that provides a suite of tools to better protect fresh water. B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act (WSA or “Act”) came into force on February 29th 2016, replacing the former 107-year old Water Act. The WSA has a number of promising features that can better protect B.C.’s fresh water. However, full implementation of the Act hinges on developing and passing the supporting regulations that will provide the necessary details to fulfill the new law’s potential.

Three of the Act’s key new opportunities include:

  • Improved legal protections for environmental flows. The WSA introduces several new mechanisms to protect water for nature, also known as environmental flows. For example, decision-makers are now required to consider the environmental flow needs of streams for new authorizations for non-domestic surface and hydraulically connected groundwater uses. The Province can also issue temporary orders that prioritize the minimum flow needs of streams and connected aquifers when significant water shortages exist and fish and ecosystem values are threatened.
  • A new comprehensive planning regime and potential for delegated decision-making. The WSA enables the creation of water sustainability plans for areas where such plans can help prevent or address conflicts between water users or between water users and environmental flow needs; or to address risks to water quality or aquatic ecosystem health. These plans will allow for customized regional solutions that can impose a variety of requirements on water users and decision-makers. The Act also introduces the possibility of delegating statutory decision-making to other organizations or entities, which gives potential opportunities for more locally based decision-making.
  • Improved land-water linkages. The WSA creates new authority to set water objectives, which establish criteria for water quality and quantity that land and resource use decision-makers can be required to consider when making their individual decisions.
Photo by Ana Simeon

Photo by Ana Simeon

Other shifts are occurring beyond the Water Sustainability Act that challenge the current approaches to water management and decision-making. Recent Supreme Court decisions affirming Aboriginal rights and title and First Nations’ water law declarations are setting new precedents for how decisions about water management are made in British Columbia. Aboriginal rights and title cannot be ignored and First Nations must have an explicit role in resource decision-making in their territories.

Clearly, the freshwater movement in B.C. is sophisticated and evolving. Dozens of water stewardship groups, Indigenous-led initiatives, local and regional governments, and watershed boards are all taking action to protect our fresh water. To continue to enhance capacity for collaboration and improved water decision-making, the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, Fraser Basin Council, First Nations Fisheries Council, and Canadian Freshwater Alliance are convening Watersheds 2016: a 1.5 day forum that will take place September 30th – October 1st at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver.

Through panel sessions, field trips, breakout workshops, structured peer-to-peer learning and networking, Watersheds 2016 participants will build skills and enhance capacity for watershed governance in British Columbia. The program reflects identified water community needs and priorities, with an underlying theme of working together for watersheds, and a focus on topics including sustainable funding for watershed governance, Indigenous-led planning and governance initiatives, and water ethics and cross-cultural values. For more information and to register visit

Featured image by Rosie Simms.

Rosie Simms is the Water Law and Policy Researcher/Coordinator for the POLIS Water Sustainability Project, based at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies.