UVic’s POLIS responds to Water Sustainability Act proposal

Campus Local News

[Correction, Nov. 7, 2013: This article was printed with a misplaced word. The below has been corrected to reflect that Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, does not believe that there has been an adequate forum for consultation. The editors apologize for our error.]


Although the B.C. Liberals recently introduced a proposal for legislation regarding water sustainability, it is an untimely revelation that Nestlé has been bottling and exporting water near Hope, practically free of charge, that has raised the profile of the proposed Water Sustainability Act (WSA).

The UVic-based POLIS Project on Ecological Governance has been working on its Water Sustainability Project since 2003. POLIS researchers have commended the provincial government’s moves to modernize the 100-year-old legislation. They applaud the fact that the WSA is on the table, and that the third public consultation is presently underway.

However, the proposal has also drawn some criticism, in part due to the announcement that the door for public engagement will close Nov. 15. That will mean an end to an open blog on the government’s WSA website. The president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs was quoted in the Aug. 22 Vancouver Sun that he does not believe that there has been an adequate forum.

At the time POLIS was working on a response to the WSA proposal, which was released in early October, it was as if nature provided the perfect backdrop for a divine comedy. A new record for the duration of fog was set after more than eight days of limited visibility in the capital. Foghorns from ships, which could contain water exported by a foreign multinational company, were heard from far beyond the Capital Regional District. The persistent water vapour was a tangible metaphor for issues such as Environmental Flows, Water Objectives, Area-Based Regulations and Water Sustainability.

Not one to let irony slip, NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra-Herbert expressed his disappointment with the WSA proposal, which outlines the intents of the Act. Pinpointing areas where the WSA will be lacking, he chastised the claim that the B.C. Liberals were ‘getting tough’ on water usage. “To say you’re charging 85 cents for a million litres of water is laughable,” Chandra-Herbert said. “But what the proposal does is just as vague.”

Chandra-Herbert suggested that by the government ending community involvement, the discussion is missing out on increasing awareness of water conservation issues in the future. His critique also suggested that the proposal doesn’t separate what is a public resource from corporate involvement. “It just doesn’t say. They have refused to put the public trust of holding the water into the legislation,” Chandra-Herbert told the Martlet. He also suggested that the Act does not acknowledge the reality of climate change, adding, “It could have gone much further.”

Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water resources, according to a 2009 UNESCO report titled Water in a Changing World. A minor degree shift in temperature may reduce the capacity for productivity in crops across mid-latitude countries, but cause some small increases in higher latitude regions (such as B.C. or Chile). However, if the climate warms three degrees overall, productivity may fall dramatically. In terms of value-added production, any change could have major implications. Adequate water flow is key to the maintenance of agricultural productivity and food security.

According to the Water Footprint Network (WFN), an online, multi-lingual learning group, an estimated 1 800 litres of water is consumed in production of one kilogram of cane sugar. This is actually water that is embedded into the product and lost into a “virtual” value (for a questionable nutritional value) and represents water that is removed from the ecosystem. WFN suggests that it takes 15 400 litres to make one kilogram of beef, as opposed to 300 litres to make a kilogram of beer. How does one prioritize water consumption? While one student might say “Where’s the beef?” another might say “Who cares? Where’s the beer?” This would be settled, under the new Act, with the question “Who got here first? The confectioner, the cowboy, or the brewer?”

The B.C. government’s WSA website points out that existing permits for water extraction would be grandfathered into the Act under the First in Time, First in Right (FITFIR) principle. POLIS offers alternative suggestions. “FITFIR is an allocation principle,” says Oliver Brandes, POLIS researcher and author. “It means the oldest licence, by date of registering, is allowed to have its amount first. So if you had three licences, one from 50 years ago, one from 20 years ago, and one from yesterday, if there is a shortage where there isn’t enough water, the most recent has to be cut off in its entirety, before the next.”

POLIS released a Strategic Analysis for Revision (SAR) of the proposed WSA on Oct. 25. This report reiterates some key issues that POLIS has researched over the last decade. It suggests the government has a once-in-a-hundred-years opportunity to address key areas and make the new water Act work successfully. In an email to the Martlet, Oliver Brandes expressed hope that the public would ask for more out of the WSA, especially in three ways: codify the public-trust doctrine to ensure water is protected now and into the future; ensure robust legal protection for water flows; and charge enough to create incentives to save water and implement effective monitoring, reporting, oversight, and enforcement.