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Water Law: The Water Sustainability Act and More

Water is frequently making headlines in BC. Whether it is too much water—such as the recent flooding in the Okanagan this past spring—or the lack of water—such as the dry conditions in northern BC this past summer that perpetuated the growth of the largest wildfire on record in BC—water is increasingly impacting the daily lives and safety of local residents.

It almost feels that it was just in time that the Province enacted the new Water Sustainability Act (“WSA”) to replace the outdated Water Act to govern and protect fresh water sources in BC. Under the WSA, the Province has expanded its abilities to react quickly to issues affecting water quality, water quantity and aquatic ecosystems in BC. Under this new legislation, the Province may now not only make orders, but it may also enact new regulations and revise water licences where necessary to protect valuable water sources and ensure limited water supplies are being used efficiently.

Although at first blush it appears the WSA does not significantly impact local governments, the WSA has significantly altered some of the structures by which water use is regulated and managed in BC. These altered structures impact the rights obtained by local governments to use water to provide works and services within their boundaries. Additionally, the WSA implements a whole new host of means to affect the use and protection of water in BC. Local governments that are interested in managing and protecting watersheds, streams or aquifers within their boundaries should be aware of these new means so that they may decide what options will best achieve their goals (with some options being to work with the Province to develop water objectives or water sustainability plans).

In this paper, we will set out the basic structures and concepts of the WSA, its impacts on local governments and their use of water, as well as the role local governments may play in ensuring local water sources are protected and sustained. Overall, the WSA does not greatly expand the authority of local governments to protect local water sources. However, the WSA does present several new opportunities to protect water, which local government entities may consider requesting to prevent local water users from adversely impacting water quality, water quantity or local aquatic ecosystems.

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