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Monique Keiran: New water act comes not a minute too soon

We can relax. The Sooke Reservoir is filled to capacity — once again, and at last. The series of storms that recently charged across the region did the honours.

VKA-keiran-7924.jpgWe can relax. The Sooke Reservoir is filled to capacity — once again, and at last. The series of storms that recently charged across the region did the honours. Together, they dropped 83 per cent of the rainfall we typically see in all of March in the month’s first nine days, and ended the region’s latest winter dry spell.

A full reservoir means we face summer with only the usual limits on water use. Years of summertime water restrictions have trained many of us to turn blind eyes to brown lawns and dusty vehicles.

Managing water is key to ensuring enough remains to go around in coming years. Last year’s hot, dry weather provided a taste of what climate-change models predict for the coast in coming decades — longer, warmer, drier summers and more intense storms, particularly in winter.

Although we cannot control when, where or how much rain falls here, we can to some extent control what happens once it hits the ground.

Two measures in B.C. that relate to that concept come to mind. One measure being considered locally is the City of Victoria’s proposed introduction of a user-pay stormwater utility. The city says that, beginning some time in 2015, it will charge property owners for stormwater runoff, based on the roof area on their properties — the amount of hard building surfaces that channel rainwater into the city’s stormwater system.

The idea is meant in part to encourage homeowners, property managers and developers to build water-absorbing/slowing features into their landscaping. By slowing stormwater flow over the ground, the city hopes to keep its storm sewers from being overwhelmed, and to prevent flooding, washouts, backups and all their attendant costs and repairs.

Victoria indicates it will provide utility discounts for rain gardens, cisterns, green roofs or permeable surfaces.

Another water-related measure concerns the entire province. The B.C. government recently announced new legislation to replace the century-old B.C. Water Act. The Water Sustainability Act is due to come into effect next spring. Although we’ve yet to see how far it and the accompanying regulations will go in protecting our water resources, the fact the long-anticipated law is finally before the B.C. legislature is a milestone in the journey toward sustainable water management in the province.

The law will require water be considered in land-use decisions, and will expand the government’s ability to protect aquatic environments. This could help safeguard stream ecology in run-of-river hydro-electric projects or in situations like that which occurred on the Cowichan River two falls ago.

Throughout 2012’s record-breaking summer drought, water released from Cowichan Lake into the river left insufficient flow later in the year. Salmon returning to the Cowichan to spawn in late September spent several weeks trapped at the river mouth, unable to swim upstream. Here’s hoping the new legislation will buttress the existing B.C. Fish Protection Act and federal fisheries laws by adding weight to fish- and river-health priorities.

It also includes groundwater in B.C.’s water-licensing system, and will require that industrial water use be measured and reported — filling two major gaps in the current Water Act. The province is also working on a new fee and rental framework to set rates for water use.

This means that companies operating in B.C. will have to measure, report and pay for the water they draw from freshwater aquifers and wells in the province. For example, Nestlé Canada currently bottles about 265 million litres of water every year at its Hope plant without paying for any of it.

To its credit, the company voluntarily measures and reports its water use to the district, but the lack of controls has prompted criticism and concern from nearby residents, who also rely on the aquifer.

When it comes into effect, B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act should fill many gaps in how water is used in this province, and help to ensure we will have enough when we need it most in the future.