Groundwater licensing just makes sense

David Slade, Cowichan Valley Citizen, 05 Jan 2017

Some facts on groundwater licensing:

There has been considerable alarm and a lot of confusion related to the new laws around the licensing of groundwater. The fact that well owners are uncertain about how the regulations and fees will affect them is not surprising, since from my own experience the government agencies are still trying to sort it out themselves.

For those who are affected and/or interested, I will try to provide some info and perhaps some rationale.

Until Feb. 29 of 2016, B.C. was pretty much the Wild West, since almost every other province and jurisdiction in North America had rules and regulations governing the use of groundwater. Here in B.C., the person with the deepest well and the biggest pump could potentially pump an aquifer dry with no restrictions, even if such pumping dried up the wells of neighbours and nearby streams or ponds.

We all understand that surface water is a shared resource, and that use of surface water needs to be monitored and controlled so that other users and ecosystems are not adversely affected by excessive extraction by any one or group of individuals, private or commercial. For more than 100 years, we have accepted surface water licensing as a means of monitoring and regulating how much water was being used, and how much remained for other users and ecosystems. Those who hold surface water licences for private domestic, municipal, commercial or agricultural use, all pay an annual licence fee for that use, based on the amount taken and the purpose for which the water is used.

Surface water users have always paid an annual licence fee for their water use, even though many of them have invested tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in intake structures, pumps, pipelines, water storage, water treatment and distribution systems. For the vast majority of private users, including residential, small utility, and irrigation systems the fee had been the minimum annual fee of $25, and had not changed for 20 years or so. Last year, all the fees doubled, so that now, the vast majority of surface water licence holders will pay $50 per year, while large municipal users may pay several thousand dollars and Catalyst will pay many tens of thousands of dollars for the water it pumps from the Cowichan system to serve the Crofton pulp mill. Is there really a reason to believe that a person who punches a hole into an aquifer should have unfettered right to use that water any more than a person who puts a pipeline into a river or a lake should be able to take whatever they want without cost or limit?

The same fee structure used for surface water is now being applied to groundwater, except that for the vast majority of groundwater users, no fees will apply, since most wells serve single family residences and as such are exempt from annual licence fees (unlike surface water users who must pay for a licence regardless of use or volume). However, if you use your water well for commercial, irrigation, or industrial use, or to serve more than one residential family dwelling, annual licence fees will apply. Again, for the vast majority of those having to pay for a licence, the fees will be $50 per year.

It has become evident that our groundwater resources are not unlimited, and in fact there are many places in the province, some right here in the Cowichan Valley, where groundwater aquifer levels have been in a year-over-year downward trend, with some private wells actually going completely dry.

Prior to 2016, there was no way to measure, monitor, or manage groundwater use in B.C., and while we are a long way from sharing the woes of California groundwater users, 50 years ago they did not think that they had any serious problems either. I believe that we should consider groundwater to be a shared resource, exactly like we do surface water, and that we should all want to know that it is being managed in a way that assures adequate supplies for all that depend on it, including other aquifer users and ecosystems, now and in the future. Further, I believe that those of us who use groundwater to generate revenue through commercial, agricultural, or municipal distribution should be the ones that pay for measuring, monitoring and managing the resource. And honestly, $50 per year, per licence, does not go a long way towards that.

One further thing to consider is that a water licence (surface or groundwater) provides the holder with a legal right to that water, based on when the water first started being used as recognized in the licence. Older licences have rights over newer licences, and water for human health and sanitation has rights over all other uses.

In closing, if you don’t have a water licence, you don’t have a legal right to that water for commercial or industrial use, and if you don’t get your water licence application in before the end of February of 2017, you will have to pay an application fee that could range from $250 per licence up to several thousand dollars per licence, depending on use and volume.

More information is available online if you search for “apply for a water license bc”, including rate calculators so one can see how much will be charged for the many different water uses, from water bottling to golf courses and pulp mills. You can also call and talk to us at Drillwell.

David Slade is a well driller from Cobble Hill.

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