Island Voices: Is the province keeping its freshwater promises?

With the end of 2018 in sight, many of us are beginning to take stock of the year’s resolutions — those made, kept or broken. This is also a moment to look beyond personal resolutions to check in on the promises made by our governments and leaders.

Despite the chaotic and politically unhinged times we are living in globally, Canadians still believe that promises matter, and that governments will do what they say they will do. And if this past roller-coaster year of extremes — floods, droughts and fires — is any indication of the hydrological instability that will shape our collective future, government’s promises to protect fresh water matter more now than ever.

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Beyond the climate and water chaos, 2018 also marked the 10-year anniversary of B.C.’s provincial water strategy: Living Water Smart. This visionary plan sets out the provincial government’s promises to prepare communities for an increasingly water-uncertain future and ensure generations to come will enjoy healthy and thriving home waters.

Inspired by this decade milestone, our research team at the University of Victoria undertook a comprehensive review of the B.C. government’s promises over the past 10 years related to sustaining fresh water. Released last week, our report card outlines achievements, gaps, and actions needed to sustain this vital resource.

How well, then, is B.C. doing to implement its freshwater commitments? Unsurprisingly, results are mixed: Real progress to celebrate exists alongside glaring gaps that must be addressed.

Since Living Water Smart came into effect in 2008, B.C. has taken significant strides. By our assessment, almost 20 per cent (eight of 45) of the specific commitments were achieved. Most notably, government followed through on its promises to modernize B.C.’s over 100-year-old water law, reaching an important milestone in 2016 with the passing of the Water Sustainability Act. The act provides a host of new opportunities to better protect water and involve communities, but implementation is plodding along, bogged down by efforts to integrate the expected 20,000 groundwater users into the licensing regime.

Timelines have certainly been stretched, but almost one-quarter (11 of 45) of Living Water Smart commitments can be considered in progress. Government staff and political leaders are pursuing meaningful new partnerships with Indigenous nations on fresh water; some initial legal protections for water flows for nature now exist; and initiatives are underway to improve water monitoring and reporting.

Despite these successes, many important water commitments have not been met with substantial — or in some cases any — follow-through. We still cannot comment on the overall health of B.C.’s waters, because the commitment to do regular “checkup” assessments was never acted on. Drinking-water sources are no better protected provincewide than they were a decade ago. Large water users are still not required to measure and report on their actual levels of water use.

Other provinces and many countries around the world regularly revisit their water plans to keep up with the changing times and ensure a clear direction is in place. A lot can happen in 10 years: Context and priorities change, and dates and commitments shift quickly as new political and social situations emerge. Some might suggest that the decade-old Living Water Smart plan is no longer relevant — belonging to a different era, a product of “governments past.”

Yet action on good water management and sustainability is more important than the politics of the day. Living Water Smart’s core vision of sustainability, and many of its specific commitments, still can serve B.C. and would help fulfil the current government’s core-mandate commitments to reconciliation, salmon and healthy rural economies.

Our research emphasizes several key areas on which government should focus its freshwater efforts. In particular, three key actions — encompassing Living Water Smart’s most important unfulfilled commitments — would set B.C. on course toward greater water security.

First, government must redouble its efforts and complete implementation of the Water Sustainability Act, with Indigenous co-leadership. Second, the province needs to provide adequate financial resources and staffing to implement the range of innovative tools desperately needed to protect fresh water. Third, B.C. must develop a rigorous provincial strategy for oversight and water monitoring, data, and compliance and enforcement.

Results from recent public polling found that British Columbians value water and expect government leadership and action: 90 per cent believe fresh water is our most precious natural resource, while 87 per cent believe the province will face a serious problem if nothing is done to improve water management.

It is not good enough to make promises and then fail to take action. British Columbians want to see solutions implemented to help communities navigate the troubling times facing our watersheds. Many of these solutions already exist in policies and recommendation reports that are languishing on shelves.

Let’s make 2019 the year that B.C. breathes new life into a revitalized water agenda, and makes water a priority to help achieve reconciliation, adapt to a changing climate, sustain healthy salmon populations and build resilient rural economies.

Rosie Simms is a researcher and project manager at the University of Victoria’s POLIS Water Sustainability Project. Oliver M. Brandes is the associate director at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies and serves as co-director of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance.

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