Water Act Modernization
Protecting Stream Health and Aquatic Environments
What does this mean for B.C. communities?
This year large parts of B.C. experienced extremely dry flow conditions; some the lowest on record, and were under significant ecological stress due to a lack of water. This meant there was not enough water to provide licence holders with their full allocation; water licensees were asked to practice water conservation; communities had to put in place water restrictions; and the environment did not have enough water. Fish kills were documented as a result of the low flow conditions. Next year may be worse if the forecasted El Nino develops and we are faced with another winter of low snowpack and do not have sufficient ground water recharge or snow pack to support flows.
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
The ecosystems and species of British Columbia have evolved and adapted to the natural hydrology of the streams, wetlands and lakes which they inhabit.Loss of sufficient flow in a stream or poor water quality can therefore harm stream health.Inadequate flows are causing a reduction in fish-food supply, impaired water quality and an increase in water temperatures.
Water allocations can alter water flow to an extent that
is degraded, affecting the health of the plants and animals in the stream and reducing the natural ecosystem services provided by the stream (Brandes et al, 2005). Some of the effects include: increasing water temperatures in a stream; reducing the streams’ ability to flush out pollutants and excess sediments; loss of connectivity, and decreasing available habitat for fish and other species. There have been significant advances in understanding how much water is needed to protect stream health and how that influences our economy and well being.
For more information on protecting nature’s needs, click here.
How are stream health and aquatic ecosystems currently protected?
Stream health and aquatic environments are currently protected by an ensemble of environmental legislation, regulation and policy. The Water Act provides two key aspects to stream health protection. The first is in the conditions included in water licenses that permit the diversion, storage and use of water from a stream (e.g. restricting use during drought conditions). The second is with respect to the protection of habitat in the way we approve changes in and about a stream (regulated through part 7 of the Water Regulation).
Although the Water Act does not consider flow needs for ecosystems and species a water use purpose, decision-makers use their discretion to include stream health. The influence of the Fish Protection Act, the federal Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, and the Environmental Assessment Act influence the consideration of stream health in decision making. The result of this structure is that there are regional variations as to how flow needs to protect stream health are considered. Despite the regional variations, experience gained from activities, such as BC Hydro water use planning, positions B.C. well to develop an effective framework to protect stream health.
A number of tools are employed to protect stream health during periods of drought. The most widely used approach involves encouraging water users to undertake voluntary water conservation. Regulatory approaches are also available through enforcement of water licence conditions and requiring temporary water use cut-backs with Section 9 of the Fish Protection Act.
Leading thoughts and practices
A review of Canadian, North American, and other world leading jurisdictions shows allocation systems are evolving to recognize ecosystems as legitimate users of water. This means that the flows needed for ecosystems are assessed and explicitly protected so stream health is sustained. Some jurisdictions are recognizing the value of goods and services provided by properly functioning ecosystems. For example, South Africa, which is considered to be a leader in water governance and management, clearly prioritizes environmental values. The allocation system places satisfying basic human needs as the first priority, the protection and preservation of ecosystem needs as second, and all other human uses as a lower priority.
Collective knowledge of flow requirements for ecosystem health is growing. As the knowledge or the life history of different plant and animal species expands, the importance of variable flows is reinforced. Several common themes emerge from literature on the subject, including:
- Recognizing the environment as a legitimate user of water and requiring the protection of ecosystems;
- Specifying the priority of ecosystem needs relative to other values or interests;
- Requiring that plans be developed to set out how ecosystem values will be protected;
- Including ecosystem allocations;
- Permitting adaptive management approaches;
- Making water rights subject to claw backs during periods of drought or when stream health is threatened;
- Requiring licensees to undertake monitoring and reporting; and,
- Including means of developing and incorporating ecological knowledge into decisions
(Brandes and Curran, 2009, Brandes and Curran, 2008 and de Loë, et al, 2007).
Where can you learn more?
A discussion paper and supporting technical report that provides more information will be available online shortly. We encourage you to check this site regularly for updates throughout the Water Act Modernization process and to submit your thoughts and comments via the Living Water Smart blog.
Other sources of information include:
Hatfield, T. Ecofish Research Ltd. 2012. BC Ministry of Environment Winter Flows Project.
Brandes, O., D. Curran. 2008. Water licences and conservation: future directions for land trusts in British Columbia. Prepared For: The Land Trust Alliance of British Columbia.
Brandes, O., D. Curran. 2009. Setting a New Course in British Columbia: Water Governance Reform Options and Opportunities.Victoria British Columbia: Polis Project on Ecological Governance.
de Loë, R., J. Varghese, C. Ferreyra, R. Kreutzwiser. 2007. Water Allocation and Water Security in Canada: Initiating a Policy Dialogue for the 21st Century.
The Instream Flow Council (IFC) is an organization that represents the interests of state and provincial fish and wildlife management agencies in the United States and Canada dedicated to improving the effectiveness of their instream flow programs.
Hatfield, T., A. Lewis, D. Ohlson, M. Bradford. 2003. Development of instream flow thresholds as guidelines for reviewing proposed water uses. Prepared for prepared for British Columbia Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management and British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection.
Independent Power Production in British Columbia: an interagency guidebook for proponents, 2008. British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Lands.
Fish Out of Water: Tools to Protect British Columbia's Groundwater and Wild Salmon Watershed Watch, Secwepemc Fisheries Commission, Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries Dept., Northern Shuswap Tribal Council, and Nicola Tribal Assoc., April 2009
“Groundwater & Healthy Streams: it’s all connected”, Douglas, T. for Watershed Watch, November 2009
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.
“Stream health” means the combined measure of a stream’s ecological integrity and function, stability within the natural range of variability, ability to provide designated uses and services, and resilience to disturbance.
Leading thoughts and practices are described here for the purpose of providing British Columbians with an understanding of the types of systems and processes adopted in other jurisdictions to protect stream health and aquatic environments.The ideas expressed here are not necessarily those endorsed by the British Columbia Provincial Government.