Special to The Record
When I was a 25-year-old, freshly minted biologist, I was lucky to land a job at the B.C. Ministry of Environment supervising watershed restoration projects. It was a time of rapid learning, not only for me, but for everyone in our new program, which was supposed to help fix the effects of outdated forestry practices. We tested many new and evolving techniques. Along the way I began to learn how government worked. One of my biggest surprises was dealing with what we called the “Water Section.” These guys were in charge of giving out water licences for irrigation, drinking water, and for other needs such as power production.
The surprise happened when I discovered that fish didn’t usually count when deciding to take water out of streams. To top it off, the government didn’t know how much water was actually being used, and the licences themselves had no end date. As a young biologist who thought things should make sense, I was flabbergasted. The practices of the Water Section were definitely out of step with what I and my coworkers were doing just a few desks over, which was making streams healthier.
Fast forward 20 years, and things have changed. Practices have evolved. The biggest step was taken just this week, when B.C.’s new Water Sustainability Act came into effect. This has been a long time coming, and is something to celebrate for those of us who want to make sure we have healthy salmon streams in our province.
British Columbia has been lagging behind other provinces in how we handle water, which makes sense given that our Water Act was 100 years old. Not only were we not counting the right of streams (and fish) to water, we hadn’t been overseeing the water taken from wells, or acknowledging the connection of groundwater – which is what comes from wells – to the water above ground. The new Water Sustainability Act addresses all these things, and our government is to be congratulated for their hard work and for getting many things right.
As with many things, the proof will be in the pudding. Hard decisions are ahead. Climate change is causing bigger summer droughts and more of them, not only due to warmer summers but also due to warmer winters, when less snow is stored in the mountains. More of this is forecast to happen. Even this year, when we have decent snow on our local mountains, some parts of our province have too little. With these low snow packs, combined with the increased likelihood of a warmer than normal spring, there is a good chance that many salmon streams will have below normal flows again this summer.
Everything we humans do requires water. In a changing and more populous world, we will need to work smarter. We will also need to ensure that we are leaving enough water for animals and plants. This is an area where implementation of the new Water Sustainability Act needs citizen support. Our government will be busy creating regulations to support the new law for a while yet. This work needs to include details regarding how much flow to leave in streams. This concept is also known as “environmental flows,” and rules (in the form of legally-binding regulations) are needed to ensure that environmental flows are properly maintained.
Concerned citizens and local groups can do their part by letting our government know: we need clear rules to ensure our fish and the streams they live in have enough water to stay healthy, and to endure the stresses of our changing climate. Please let your provincial government representative know that you care about enforceable regulations for environmental flows. And while you’re at it, please thank them for what they have done so far.
Tanis Gower has been working to restore aquatic ecosystems and advocate for good water policies for the last 20 years. She is a Registered Professional Biologist from the Comox Valley who works on projects for Watershed Watch Salmon Society, local government, and others.