More than 130,000 people have signed an online petition protesting the province’s new water-pricing policy. They are right to be concerned. For years, B.C.’s freshwater supply has been under-managed. Existing regulations, soon to be replaced, are largely toothless. There is no long-term management framework, nor any meaningful commitment to stewardship.
One symptom of this neglect is a fee regime that is often inadequate, occasionally non-existent. Commercial water-bottling firms, for example, are charged not a cent for the groundwater they use.
Nestlé, which runs a plant in Hope, draws 265 million litres annually. Although a bottle sells for about $1.20, the contents are essentially free.
Some of this will change next year, when the government’s new Water Sustainability Act kicks in. The legislation features a more comprehensive licensing system, along with an updated fee structure.
It’s unlikely households will see an appreciable change. But the price tag for agricultural and industrial consumers will rise. And private operators who sell water as a commodity will finally have to pay.
What then are the reasons for concern? There are two.
In itself, the new pricing scheme appears ill-considered. More important, it points to a deeper lack of purpose.
Small agricultural producers, many of whose operations are marginal at best, take a hit. Their water rates increase 40 per cent, meaning the bill for irrigating 50 hectares of hay, for example, would jump to $377 from $266.
With farmland already idle in many regions, that is an unwelcome burden to impose.
However, the real puzzle lies in the government’s approach to commercial sales of water. The new fee for water bottling companies has been set at just $2.25 per million litres. That means a company such as Nestlé will pay $596 for a product worth more than $300 million on the open market.
According to Environment Minister Mary Polak, the reason for such a negligible price is that she refuses to engage in profiteering. The new rates are to cover administrative costs in managing the resource.
But that misses an obvious objection. Our water is already being sold for profit.
And it raises a question that Polak appears unwilling to face: How do you protect a resource by giving it away?
A broader perspective is required. Canada has the largest reservoir of freshwater among the OECD nations. British Columbia shares this wealth.
But we are profligate users: Only the U.S. extracts more groundwater per capita. And our prices are low by international standards.
In short, we have taken this resource for granted down the years.
Now look what is happening below the border. California is in the midst of a years-long drought, by some accounts the most devastating ever recorded. Water shortages ranked severe to exceptional extend across the entire American southwest.
If these conditions persist, and many scientists believe they will, the demand for water — anyone’s water — will grow. How will Canada, and how will British Columbia, respond?
Polak might say that’s a bridge we’ll cross when we get there. But shortfalls in the U.S. are only one facet of a larger picture. Around the globe, freshwater is being transformed from a resource of almost infinite capacity to a commodity in limited supply.
Our government has a duty to build the necessary safeguards. It’s not a matter of selling water for a profit, though in a government perennially strapped for money, a more businesslike mentality would have paid.
Polak needs to show how the changing landscape has influenced her thinking — and her willingness to act. Once-in-a-generation legislation should look beyond the here and now. The new Water Sustainability Act does not.