Editorial: B.C.’s water is undervalued

Changes to regulations governing B.C.’s water supplies are welcome, but the legislation still does not fully acknowledge the true value of this precious resource.

Last year, the government replaced B.C.’s Water Act of 1909 with the Water Sustainability Act, which, among other things, states that users of the province’s ground-water (other than homeowners on individual wells) must pay for the water they extract. The new rules require water users to pay permit-application fees and water-rental rates.

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The province is technically the owner of groundwater, but before this legislation, anyone could take water from the ground without a licence and without charge. That has allowed Nestlé Waters Canada, the world’s largest supplier of bottled water, to take about 265 million litres of fresh water a year from a well near Hope without a permit and at no cost for the water itself.

Beginning next January, the company and others who use groundwater will pay rates based on how much water they use.

But it’s a pittance — Nestlé Canada will pay about $562 for the water it uses in a year. Considering that bottled water usually sells for more than gasoline, that’s an incredible bargain.

That is no criticism of Nestlé — the company has always said it was willing to pay a fair price for water. In addition, it has voluntarily reported the amount of its water withdrawal to the District of Hope and has urged the province to do an inventory of water resources.

Environment Minister Mary Polak says the province doesn’t sell water and doesn’t want to present an image of generating revenue from the resource. But why not? The province charges royalties for oil and gas extracted from the ground.

Although far more plentiful than petroleum, water is still a valuable commodity. Life would be difficult without petroleum, but life would be impossible without water. It should be freely available, but should it be free?

It’s not. The typical capital region household’s annual water bill, based on an estimated consumption of 300 cubic metres, is close to the same amount Nestlé will pay, except that Nestlé gets about a thousand times the volume of water for that price.

It wouldn’t be fair to make a straight-across comparison. Household users are paying for water treatment and infrastructure, which a bottled-water company must provide for itself. But those figures indicate the province does not value water as it should.

Nor do most of us. B.C. is abundantly supplied with fresh water, and is the envy of much of the world in that respect.

The amount of water does not change — in nature, water is not generally created or destroyed. It flows along stream beds to the ocean, evaporates into the atmosphere and returns as precipitation in the great hydrological cycle that keeps the planet alive.

But it doesn’t always return when and where we want it. It is not evenly distributed, geographically or seasonally.

And after we have used it or abused it, it is often polluted. Fracking, logging and other activities threaten the quality of our water. Yes, protective regulations are in place, but we cannot let our guard down.

The province should compile a water inventory, with particular attention to groundwater. It’s easier to chart the flow of a river and the level of a lake; it’s much more difficult to measure how much water is held underground in aquifers and how quickly those aquifers recharge.

We should not be lulled into apathy by the sheer quantity of water in the province. As island-dwellers, we know that we can be surrounded by water and still be short of this most precious commodity.

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