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Private water rights must be trumped by public good

January 31, 2013 · 4:48 PM
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Dear editor,

At a January public meeting sponsored by the Comox Valley Chapter of the Council of Canadians, environmental scientist Bharat Chandramouli reminded us of an alternative vision we can have for our water resources, that of water as a public trust.

Chandramouli reminded us that we do not have unlimited fresh water for all time.

In many parts of the world, climate change is bringing drought, industrial development and fracking are polluting vast quantities of water in the name of progress, people are sickening and dying from drinking contaminated water.

In Canada, our water resources have been put on the table in ongoing CETA negotiations. Here in the Comox Valley, many are worried about the effect the proposed Raven and Bear coal mines could have on local aquifers and drinking water sources for the Valley.

B.C.’s first Water Act in 1909 was prompted by frequent disputes and litigation over water rights. One of its significant provisions was that of “first in time, first in right.” That is, that the first to apply for a particular water licence would have first rights to the resource.

Chandramouli pointed out that the Act makes little provision for community involvement in deciding how water resources will be used. It fails to mandate conservation, minimum flows and long term planning.

There is no obligation for licence holders to report how much they are using. There are no enforcement regulations. The human right to water, now recognized worldwide, was not addressed.

In 2010, B.C. launched a consultation process to review the Act. Reaction was mixed to the Water Act Modernization discussion paper that was released.

Over 900 written submissions were received, but no further action has been taken. It seems unlikely that the present government will try to finish this process prior to the May 2013 election.

In Canada, water resource are “owned” by the Crown, to be given away or sold at the government’s discretion. Surely the time is right for a shift in our thinking.

It is time to think of stewarding our water resources for the good of present and future generations and of our ecosystems. Private rights must be trumped by public good.

We need a new system open to all participation by all stakeholders. Rules must be established with clear systems for monitoring and enforcement, backed by an accessible dispute-resolution system.

It is time for water to become a public trust, one that is stewarded for ecosystems, the people who use them, and economic activities for generations to come.

Kathie Woodley

Editor's note: Kathie Woodley is a member of the Comox Valley Chapter of the Council of Canadians.

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