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Les Leyne: Plenty of confusion and non-compliance in licensing of water wells

Thousands of water users could soon be out of compliance with new groundwater management rules
The B.C. legislature in Victoria. TIMES COLONIST

It looks like the government is raising the stakes in a long-­running stand-off with thousands of people who haven’t acted on a requirement to obtain a licence for their non-domestic wells.

A deadline to do so that was imposed years ago expires tonight. There’s been no indication yet that it will be extended, as it has in the past. Barring a last-minute extension, that would leave thousands of water users out of compliance with the new groundwater management regime that was enacted several years ago.

Although about 15,000 users are involved, outside experts don’t expect much in the way of a dramatic change. Many of them are very small users in isolated areas where there are no competing interests for the groundwater. The government will continue to urge people with wells used for other than drinking water to get the licence. That’s the proposition that the majority of such users have been ignoring for the past several years.

There isn’t enough staff to pursue each case. Where the pressure will build is in a situation where there are multiple people drawing from the same aquifer and a new user applies for a licence. The government could be obliged to issue one, which would give the new applicant precedence over ­people who have been using pre-­existing wells for decades.

Changes in the water table due to droughts could intensify the problem.

An advocacy group for water policy has been warning about how difficult groundwater management could get in those situations, but the government did little to encourage people to apply for licences.

Users of wells going back decades prior to 2016, when the new regime was developed, were given a 2019 deadline to apply, which was later extended to March 1, 2022.

Ted van der Gulik, a retired provincial water management engineer, warned a legislature committee last fall how dire the situation could eventually get.

“The social, economic and political costs of being forced to shut down businesses of 15,000 current groundwater users … are too severe to contemplate.”

Opposition B.C. Liberals demanded last week that the deadline be extended. Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson said the situation is the result of widespread confusion and lack of clear information from government that has prevented people from making the required registration.”

More time is needed for comprehensive outreach, he said.

As of Monday, the government website advises non-domestic groundwater users they will be committing an offence as of Wednesday and be subject to fines and penalties if they don’t get a licence.

Just So You Know: Developments after last week’s cabinet realignment prompt me to write this grudging clarification/excuse/defence.

When Premier John Horgan announced last week he was breaking up the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Ministry, creating a new Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship, and leaving forests as a standalone, it triggered my journalistic cunning. My thought process, honed by years of experience, went like this: “Hmmm… A minister of water…. Those wells have water in them. I bet the new minister of water is now responsible for those groundwater wells.”

That turned out to be a rash assumption. Officials told me later that yes, the new ministry is responsible for setting high-level policy about groundwater. But the job of issuing licences remains with the Ministry of Forests, where it’s been for years. The Ministry of Forests also retains responsibility for the water sustainability act, the law under which the licences are issued. (They’re calling it “cross-sector solutioning.”)

But before that, based on my naïve assumption that a water minister would be wholly responsible for water issues, at the news conference I asked the premier and the new minister, Josie Osborne, about the licensing deadline.

Osborne said she was getting up to speed, it’s a really important item and she’d be turning her full attention to it.

Horgan backed her up. He said she’s now got her first job, and even graciously invited me to take credit for it. “Minister Osborne will be looking at that probably in the next hour.”

So now I have to take responsibility for giving her a job for which she’s not actually responsible. It’s still Forests Minister Katrine Conroy’s job.

But based on how they accepted my erroneous premise, in my sullen defence, I’m not the only one who looks confused.

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