Groundwater message drowned out

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Don’t shoot the messenger, said one of the speakers facing a room packed with farmers, business owners and anyone else who draws water from a well (for non-domestic purposes). It was an information session on groundwater held Nov. 8 in Duncan.

That comment set the apologetic tone, as two experts from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) explained how to comply with the new groundwater regulations.

B.C. is one of the last areas in Canada to require licensing of groundwater wells. Saskatchewan’s started in 1959, Ontario in 1961, and Alberta and Manitoba in 1962.

Although B.C. passed the Water Sustainability Act nine months ago, FLNRO chose not to publish a news release about details like groundwater regulations. That meant the regional staffers are faced with organizing face-to-face seminars to explain the rules and ease people through the admittedly awkward software design. As a result, the fatigue was evident (this was the 10th seminar they had held on Vancouver Island) in the responses from presenters Pat Lapcevic, a FLNRO hydrogeologist, and Faye Hirshfield, senior authorizations specialist for water. They had heard all the questions before.

If you want to save money, the crowd was told, get your paperwork done by March 1, 2017. Before then, well owners won’t be charged the one-time application fee (which can range from $250 to $10,000). But the government did not let us know deadline is coming up with a wide-ranging news release. If you have a domestic well, you should get it registered, but you are exempt from licensing fees.

Not only was the communication plan nonexistent, but there was little confidence in online forms (created by policy people, said Hirshfield) and the website. “We’ve asked for more bandwidth. The website will crash,” said the presenters. It makes you wonder: is this a provincial money grab or a real effort to license and then monitor water resources?

Licensing fees are based on purpose, not volume. Irrigation is charged a different rate than waterworks or mills. And there’s an incentive to license early due to a kind of well seniority, called “first in time, first in right (FITFIR).” Said well driller David Slade, ‘It used to be the wild west. The guy with the deepest well and biggest pump could suck people’s water dry with impunity.”

Shawnigan watchdog Cliff Evans asked whether there was any mechanism to protect water from pollution. Answer: the act sets quality levels but there’s no power over land use.

Identifying the owners and the usage rates of B.C. water wells is just the beginning. Once the database is established, they can tackle conservation incentives, possibly charging more for high-volume users. “I anticipate in areas where water scarcity is an issue, we will see water metering,” said Hirshfield.

The whole process should be complete by 2019, they say. Let’s not get hung up on forms. As the climate changes, the real value of these regulations comes later. FLRNO has to look at the whole connected water system starting with a complete aquifer plan.

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