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Kelowna chapter critique of Bill 18 prompts response by BC’s environment minister

PolakBritish Columbia’s minister of the environment Mary Polak has responded to Council of Canadians’ criticisms of Bill 18, her government’s new Water Sustainability Act (WSA). She wrote a letter to the editor in The Daily Courier in response to a critique of her legislation by the Council of Canadians Kelowna chapter.

Ms. Polak writes, “Contrary to C of C assertions, the WSA will regulate all groundwater uses (except household domestic groundwater use) regardless of size. This means that for the very first time, about 20,000 existing non-domestic groundwater users in B.C. will be regulated and required to pay annual rentals. For surface water, most industrial and commercial rental rates have more than doubled under the new rental rates.”

But, as we have highlighted, the water rental rates announced by the BC government in early February are about $2.25 per million litres of water, which works out to be about $5.63 for the amount of water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Under Ms. Polak’s Water Sustainability Act, Nestlé Waters would be charged $562 for 250 million litres of water that it would bottle and sell for considerable profit. Additionally, the license fee for water taken for fracking would be $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000, the top rate to be paid by corporations that use over 5 million litres of water per day. The license fee for saw mills that use up to 50 million litres of water per day would drop from $10,000 to $1,000. And a sliding scale feel would be applied to “independent power projects” that lowers costs for small power producers. Our ally The WaterWealth Project has estimated that each LNG tanker leaving the BC coast would represent a virtual bulk water export of up to 21 million litres for which the province would be paid $47.25 in water rental fees.

Ms. Polak may think this is fair pricing and a stringent regulation on large water takers, we do not.

The minister also highlights, “The WSA requires that notices be provided where water rights may be adversely affected by a proposed new water authorization. Contrary to C of C statements, new measuring and reporting requirements under the WSA will also ensure effective water conservation. It also includes provisions to support the treaty process and water for First Nations.”

But she evades the reality that the Water Sustainability Act fails to recognize water as a human right despite the United Nations General Assembly having affirmed this right almost five years ago. While her Act requires notices to be given to people whose access to water may be adversely affected by new groundwater withdrawals, it does not require that notification be given to other people in the watershed, it does not have a provision that automatically triggers a public comment period (as exists in Ontario), nor does it respect a community’s right to say ‘no’ to projects that abuse or pollute water. And while the minister claims the Act supports “the treaty process”, it does not recognize Indigenous title and jurisdiction to watersheds nor does it enshrine free, prior and informed consent protocols.

Bill 18 may be an improvement over the existing 100-year-old Water Act, but it unfortunately falls short of what communities across this province need when it comes to strong water legislation that puts public interest ahead of corporate profits. The Council of Canadians asks the minister to amend Bill 18 to reflect our core demands listed here.

Further reading
Kelowna chapter opposes Bill 18 (February 2015 blog)
Council of Canadians opposes BC’s new Water ‘Sustainability’ Act (February 2015 blog by Maude Barlow)
Does BC’s New Water Sustainability Act Sink or Swim? (March 2014 blog by Leila Darwish)
BC Water Act not likely to limit fracking in the province (December 2013 blog)
Action Alert: B.C. Water Sustainability Act

Photo: BC environment minister Mary Polak responds to the Kelowna chapter’s critique of her water legislation.