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Water Act Modernization

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Improving Water Governance Arrangements

British Columbians are interested in water. Working together, government, industry and communities are learning how to deal with the impacts of climate change and our rapid population growth. British Columbians are showing leadership and taking action to protect and sustain our water. There is significant interest in, and support for, improving the water governance arrangements and involving more people in watershed planning and decision making.

Water governance refers to the decisions and supporting arrangements that help to achieve long term sustainability of the water resource. Water governance is about the processes and framework which enable decision-makers and stakeholders to manage a resource. Modernizing the Water Act provides an opportunity to make changes to water governance in B.C. to enable more appropriate levels of community participation.

All around the world, citizen expectations to participate in the policy making activities and address local water management issues are increasing. Water issues are complex and are usually best solved collaboratively, which includes using solutions that fall outside government control. Experience shows that people take more responsibility for their actions only after they have helped to determine the issues and solutions.

Improving water governance includes streamlining water laws with other natural resource statutes and making them easier to understand, use and enforce. It could also include new approaches to governance such as enabling watershed-based authorities to take on delegated responsibilities or decisions in some areas, within clear provincial standards and oversight.

What are the current water governance arrangements?

B.C.’s current water governance framework has evolved over more than 100 years of water law but was largely developed to respond to a different set of water management concerns and societal expectations and values than those B.C. has today.

The Canadian Constitution sets out the Provincial government’s role in water management. Water governance is primarily set out in the Water Act, which vests ownership of water resources in the Crown. Other acts that establish important roles and responsibilities include the Drinking Water Protection Act, Environmental Management Act, Dike Maintenance Act, Fish Protection Act, Water Protection Act, and Forest and Range Practices Act.

Provincial decision-makers currently licence and regulate the use of surface water only, and aside from power licenses, water licenses generally do not expire or come up for review.

B.C.’s water resources vary significantly suggesting that one policy cannot fit all. There is a clear need for flexibility. Enabling legislation means that legal responses can be tailored or ”switched” on or off depending on the needs of the region or issue. This helps the legislation adapt quickly to particular issues and climate change adaptation needs. Ways to solve the current hurdles to proactive water management are being sought.

Watershed planning is part of governance

An important mechanism for water governance and participation is the role and function of watershed planning. While there are several existing types of water plans (usually for specific purposes), it is also vital to consider water in general planning frameworks such as Official Community Plans (OCP) and Regional Growth Strategies (RGS). These plans help to integrate water into land management and community planning processes and outcomes.

Water Act changes may consider shared governance and decision making models; however, the Province will continue to be accountable for the protection of water resources in the public interest.

B.C. currently has many planning tools applicable to private and crown land. These include:

  • Water management plans (legally binding or non-legally binding);
  • Water Allocation Plans (technical plans to assist with making water licensing decisions (Vancouver Island only));
  • BC Hydro Water Use Plans (for BC Hydro’s water facilities);
  • Fish recovery plans (site specific);
  • Official community plans;
  • Regional growth strategies;
  • Strategic Land & Resource Management Plans;
  • Sustainable Resource Management Plans(planning for provincial Crown land).

The Water Act modernization project offers a chance to look at the planning framework for water and consider ways to improve the uptake and practice of watershed planning.

Leading thoughts and practices

Many jurisdictions across Canada and the world have already updated or are updating their systems of water governance. Changes range from the massive effort in Europe through the EU Water Framework Directive to smaller changes by our neighbours in Oregon.

Key trends are requiring this shift and some exist here in British Columbia also. They include:

  • Understanding that climate change impacts will dramatically affect the water cycle and require significant shifts in water allocation and governance;
  • A greater desire for and new approaches to participation and citizen involvement in natural resource decisions; and,
  • Increased understanding of the need to adopt an ecosystem based approach to environmental management and integrated water resources management.

Often jurisdictions delegate or distribute their water governance from a national/ state/ provincial level to a watershed or basin level: Canadian examples include Alberta’s Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils, Quebec’s Basin Organizations and Ontario’s Conservation Authorities. International examples include the EU Framework Water Directive, which mandates watershed councils for all rivers (including trans-boundary watersheds) within the EU. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and many of the US states also follow a watershed based council model.

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:

Delegating Water Governance: Issues and Challenges in the BC Context. Linda Nowlan and Karen Bakker, November 2007. This report on evolving approaches to water governance in Canada, focusing on water governance issues and challenges in BC and was commissioned by the BC Water Governance Project.

BC Water Governance workshops summary reports are available at:

UBC program on Water Governance conducts basic research on water management, engages the wider community in outreach and education on water issues, and facilitates dialogue on water governance between universities, communities, government, NGOs and the private sector.

At a Watershed: Ecological Governance and Sustainable Water Management in Canada, addresses specific issues of governance and goes beyond the urban environment. Oliver M Brandes, Keith Ferguson, Michael M'Gonigle, Calvin Sandborn 2005.

The Polis project on ecological governance’s water sustainability project recognizes that water scarcity is largely a social crisis of governance that should be addressed through integrated approaches to water management and decision-making.

Brandes, O and Curran, D. (2009) “Setting a New Course in BC – Water Governance Reform Options and Opportunities”.

Close Tooltip

What is Water Governance?

Water governance refers to the decisions and supporting arrangements that help to achieve long term sustainability of the water resource. Water governance is about the processes and framework which enable decision-makers and stakeholders to manage a resource. It includes the laws and regulations, the agencies and institutions that are responsible for decision making and the policies and procedures they use to make decisions.

Governance relates to networks of influence and includes both formal and informal ways that authority is exercised (Ayre & Callway 2005) and recognises both state and non-state actors are equally important (Bakker, 2007). Governance is different from management which focuses on the operational, on-the-ground activity to regulate a resource and conditions of its use (Brandes & Curran 2009).

Close Tooltip Water Stewardship Division, Ministry of Environment, partnered with the Fraser Basin Council, Fraser Salmon and Watershed Program, Georgia Basin Living Rivers Program, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to explore the issues and challenges of improving water governance in B.C. This project began with the preparation of a discussion paper by the University of British Columbia Program on Water Governance – ”Delegating Water governance: Issues and Challenges in the BC Context (Nowlan and Bakker)” – to support a series of four regional workshops on water governance in the Province. The series of workshops was completed in May 2008.
Close Tooltip 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 address the issues noted above. The ideas expressed here are not necessarily those endorsed by the British Columbia Provincial Government.