Comment: Water crises are call to action for B.C.’s leaders

The rains have returned to the coast, signalling the end of another long, hot season characterized by back-to-back water crises. Almost no part of the province was spared the historic floods, fires and drought that took place between May and August.

Unfortunately, experts agree things are only expected to get worse. The extreme conditions that have been a feature of recent summers (and springs) are becoming the new normal.

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But while water problems are increasingly common, they’re no less worrying for the citizens of this province. Opinion data released this week show more than half of British Columbians fear a looming water crisis in their community. At least two-thirds worry about water scarcity, drought and floods. Eight in 10 fret over the impact of water problems on iconic species such as salmon (and orcas) and the aquatic habitat they depend on. At least 75 per cent are concerned about pollution or drinking-water contamination.

Our concerns aren’t just rooted in the dramatic nature of the problems we’re seeing around us. They come from a widely shared appreciation British Columbians have for water. Nine in 10 believe water is our most precious natural resource, more than oil, gas or lumber. Majorities agree water is vital to our quality of life and a source of local pride. When British Columbians use their own words to describe freshwater, “clean,” “beautiful” and “pristine” are commonly used.

But so are “protection,” “preservation” and “keep.” Beyond every distressing headline is a grassroots, people-powered campaign aimed at safeguarding the foundation of what keeps our communities and the ecosystems around them healthy.

This summer, as drought took hold of Vancouver Island, residents of the Comox Valley successfully petitioned their regional district to reject a new water-bottling facility in an effort to protect the region’s groundwater supply.

Along the lower Fraser River between Mission and Hope, anglers and community members are standing up to developers who want to build bridges across critical salmon-spawning grounds and habitat in a river that hosts some of the world’s mightiest runs.

A petition calling on the provincial government to review the royalties industry currently pays for the water it uses — which could fund much-needed stewardship and restoration projects on B.C.’s rivers — generated more than 30,000 new signatures in August. (The fact that B.C. charges some of the lowest rates for water use in Canada apparently isn’t lost on the public.)

This week, municipalities voted in favour of a resolution that supports more local say over how water is used and managed, ensuring community concerns are at the forefront of decision-making, including during times of crisis.

Driven by their concerns and values, British Columbians across the province are stepping up to protect our most treasured resource. According to the polling, they want the provincial government to do the same: 87 per cent believe we’ll face a serious problem if nothing is done to improve how water is managed here.

So what should the B.C. government do? Introduce a provincewide environmental flows regulation that ensures streams and rivers are thriving, not just barely surviving, as many across eastern Vancouver Island were this summer.

Establish water objectives, also set in regulation, that land and resource managers must use when making decisions about forestry, mining and other activities that impact B.C.’s freshwater. Bring forward a strong wild-salmon strategy that preserves freshwater habitat, which also plays an important role in flood prevention.

And follow through on its commitment to review the royalties industry must pay to extract water from our rivers, lakes and streams, as the government promised in its election platform.

The time is now for leadership in defending B.C.’s most precious resource. If water crises are the new normal, we need more than the status quo from our decision-makers.

Coree Tull is the organizing director of Canadian Freshwater Alliance. Mark Angelo is the Outdoor Recreation Council rivers chair and founder and chair of B.C. and World Rivers Day. Aaron Hill is the executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

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