B.C. is seeing intense competition among users for water and for natural ecosystem functions like fish rearing. A certain amount of water flow is required in a stream so it can function like nature intended; this is
sometimes referred to as the
“instream flow”. Inadequate flows are causing a reduction in fish-food supply, habitat loss, loss of connectivity, impaired water quality and an increase in water temperatures.
If your area has or may experience conflicts over water between water users and the ecosystem, this page will interest you.
Recognizing water flow requirements for ecosystems and species is an important measure to guarantee the ongoing health and sustainability of the ecosystem. A policy to recognize water flow requirements can provide certainty for users in the watershed about exactly when and how much water is available.
What is the B.C government doing?
Developing Regulatory tools
Regulatory tools will be reviewed to include provisions for adequate water flow requirements for ecosystems and species. Water flow requirements aren’t just about a minimum flow in a stream. The Instream Flow Council of North America has identified five components to assess
water flow needs for ecosystems and species.
The Water Act modernization project will consider:
- The quantity and timing of water available for allocation in a stream;
- Conditions, restrictions and procedures which should be included in new licences; and
- Compliance and synergy with other Acts and legislation designed to protect fish habitat and fish populations.
Government is working on hydro-ecological characterization of key B.C. watersheds to describe watersheds that have “flow-sensitive” streams. To date, studies have been completed for the Peace-Omineca Region, the Similkameen-Boundary Region, and the Lower Mainland Region. Further information about these studies can be found in Reports and Publications.
Current water flow requirement tools that the Ministry of Environment and others are already working with include:
- Guidance for assessing instream flow needs related to water-power projects.
- The Vancouver Island region provides water resource information (maps) indicating times when water is available for diversion to storage and when water cannot be taken from a river.
- Reports describing the hydrology, water use and conservation flows for various fish species throughout B.C. such as the Okanagan Lake Basin (Rood 2001) and Fraser River Action Plan (Rood and Hamilton 1995).
Training those who work with the Water Act
Guidance to support new water flow requirements for ecosystems and species will be provided for water licences applications and approvals. New training will be provided to consider water flow requirements, including the variability of seasonal stream flow and aquatic ecosystem needs. These will include:
- information requirements for the decision-maker;
- methods for assessing instream flow requirements;
- clarification of who provides input on the requirements; and
- roles of applicants, decision-makers, and agency specialists.
Cutting back in times of scarcity
When water is scarce or where stream health is being threatened tough decisions will need to be made about how to use what is available. To protect aquatic values, water laws will be amended to require water users to cut back on water when there is not enough water to meet all demands.
- New water licences are being issued with a condition that allows the province to require the user to cut back diversions in critical periods to protect aquatic life.
- For existing water licences the Water Act modernization project will include consultation guidance on how to best regulate water users during these critical periods.
- Work will take place with licencees to help clarify how they exercise their rights, such as maximum rates of diversion where it is not stated in licences, to help protect stream flows and ecosystem health.
What can you do?
- Save electricity. Most of the electricity used in British Columbia comes from water power. Using less electricity means that less water is required to be diverted from a stream to generate power.
- Developers should seek expert advice on long-term water supply conditions and flow needs of fish as they relate to when, where and how much water is to be diverted.
Did you know?
- Water flow requirements vary across the province according to natural water supply and ecosystem needs.
- B.C. has a history of rapid population growth and water allocations/use dating back to the late 1800s. In many cases, water supply limitations were unknown and fish were not part of water licensing decisions. Many smaller streams areas fully recorded or fully allocated meaning water supply is now severely limited and streams often go completely dry.
Graphic of flow on Coast and flow in interior.
Water is used in three main ways:
- Fish and other wildlife live in (stream flows are “home”) or use water. The environment relies on water being left in the stream so it can function naturally (ecosystem needs) and this also applies to biology such as fish flow needs;
- Humans remove water out of the stream for domestic uses, electricity generation, irrigation and many more uses (consumptive uses); and
- Humans use water in the stream – for navigation, recreation, fishing, tourism and landscape values (instream uses).
While the protection of fish and fish habitat is often the primary consideration for water flow requirements, dilution of waste discharges, recreation and navigation and First Nations traditional uses can also be protected.