Editorial: Taking measure of B.C.’s water

British Columbia’s new Water Sustainability Act kicks in Jan. 1, and it’s not a minute too soon. While the province is abundantly supplied with water, it’s a finite vital resource. If we let that apparent abundance of water lull us into taking it for granted, we could find ourselves coming up short of usable water.

The rainy season might not seem the time to be worrying about water supplies, but on southern Vancouver Island, we know how quickly the wet season can be replaced by extended drought. Most of us are aware that one or two dry winters could result in low reservoir levels and water rationing.

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As part of implementing new regulations, the province faces a huge task in assessing the quantity, quality and distribution of B.C.’s water supplies. In granting permits for water use, authorities need to know if the water is safe, how much water can be withdrawn in a particular area and what factors could threaten the water supply.

In many parts of the U.S., population growth and development are stretching water supplies beyond their limits. The problem has been magnified by climate change, and for many areas, severe water crises are only a matter of time. Already, production in California’s food-growing areas has been cut back because of dwindling irrigation water.

B.C. is not California, but there’s a lesson to be learned — water sustainability is best achieved by staying ahead, not always trying to catch up. We cannot assume that a water source flowing today will be flowing next year or 10 years from now.

University of Victoria scientist Tom Gleeson led a study of the Earth’s groundwater, which found this resource is being used up too quickly. Less than six per cent of the groundwater used around the world can be renewed within a human lifetime.

That’s one area where B.C. has much work to do. In issuing groundwater permits, the question must be asked: What is the recharge rate? Then use of the water must be tied to that recharge rate.

Most people in Greater Victoria get their water from the regional water system, which depends on the Sooke, Goldstream and Leech watersheds, but a substantial number get their water from wells. While it is not always apparent, groundwater and surface water are part of the same system. What happens in one affects the other.

Nearly 30 per cent of Canada’s population depends on groundwater for its drinking water. For rural residents, it’s more than 80 per cent.

“Groundwater, a critical resource that Canadians often treat as ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ is now gaining visibility due to contamination, over-use and conflicts,” says a 2009 report assembled by an expert panel for the Council of Canadian Academies. “Groundwater quality and quantity problems incur enormous costs for society.”

Nestlé Waters North America came under criticism for packaging 300 million litres of B.C. groundwater for free every year. The province has imposed a usage fee that will see the company pay $2.25 per million litres.

Is the amount the company withdraws excessive? Does it pay the province too little? It’s hard to say until a proper inventory is conducted.

That can’t be done quickly. The province has begun the process of seeing how much water people can safely use in the Cobble Hill-Mill Bay area. That means measuring the water flowing into and out of 10 aquifers in that region. Similar studies will be undertaken elsewhere in the province.

For too long, we have seen water as a free and unlimited resource. We now know better. But with good stewardship, we can ensure that we won’t run out.

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