Op-ed: Forget Texas, B.C. is the Wild West of Water

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By Spencer Chandra Herbert, Special to the Vancouver Sun

In Texas, water is so precious that the state has had to settle who owns the water flowing off of people’s driveways in the rain. Under Texas state law, this “diffused surface water” belongs to the landowner whose land it touches until it enters a natural watercourse.

Unfortunately, in stark contrast to Texas, where every ounce of usable water is counted and accounted for, in British Columbia, the government is set to repeat the mistakes of the past by leaving large loopholes in our provincial Water Act.

There are 46 desalination plants licensed to operate in Texas today. Tapped into the state’s deep saltwater aquifers, these plants pump water that has been stored beneath the earth’s crust for tens of thousands of years. On the surface, salt is removed and contaminants are filtered out. This water is then used by households and industry, and paid for dearly.

Contrast that with B.C., where the Liberal government is proposing a new water act that will leave similar water resources without legal protections. While this water may not be critically important to us today, we do not know what our needs will be in 50 years, especially with the uncertainties of climate change. Given the fact that water in deep aquifers can take thousands of years to replenish, it would be foolish to leave them unregulated.

Think about how much our province has changed since the original Water Act was passed in 1909. It was a different century in a previous millennium. It was before snow-makers on ski hills and multinational drink bottlers. The result is the government at the time failed to make laws that apply to the problems of today.

Given how fundamental water is to human life, the economy, and the environment, we can’t afford a weak new water act. That’s why it’s so disappointing that the Liberals’ proposed new water act fails to address the dirt-cheap prices (ranging from free to $1.10 for a million litres) being charged to oil and gas companies who use fresh water, giving them no incentive to use this irreplaceable resource more efficiently.

Contrast that with oil and gas companies in Colorado, who are willing to pay $1,200 to $2,900 for an acre-foot of water (just over 1.2 million litres) for the exact same purpose.

While putting a price on an irreplaceable resource that is fundamental to human life, industry and the environment is always difficult, British Columbians have made it clear that they want the government to bring in strong protections for our water. This includes recognizing that while putting a price on water won’t solve all our problems, it creates an incentive for industry and other large users to use it more efficiently. Market signals are a vital component of conservation efforts.

The B.C. Liberals’ weak-kneed water act would also give the world’s largest food company, Nestle, 2 million bottles of water at a cost of less than a dollar. B.C. taxpayers can’t afford these sorts of sweetheart deals in a time of austerity, especially when the Minister of the Environment admitted that the fees paid by Nestle and oil and gas companies likely wouldn’t even pay the government’s bill for administration related to the legal changes.

Half a century ago no one would have imagined that the Colorado River would be drained to a trickle. Yet, this summer the Southern Nevada Water Authority advocated for disaster relief in response to water scarcity in the Colorado River system. All indications suggest that dwindling water supplies will also seriously impact electricity generation on the Hoover dam by 2015.

Here at home, our water is vital to the provincial economy too, with hydro being our main source for creating the electricity that lights our homes and cities and powers our businesses. However, we need to remember that water is not just a competitive advantage in an increasingly thirstier world; it is the lifeblood of the natural splendour that we love and benefit from.

While it may seem like British Columbia, with its abundance of water, is nothing like Texas, we simply can’t know what the future holds, especially as climate change reshapes our province. What looks like abundance today, may be scarcity tomorrow. We need to learn from the struggles of our neighbours by bringing in strong protections for our water before problems arise, not after.

These are just a few of the concerns New Democrats have about the B.C. Liberals’ proposed water legislation. We need a new water act that balances human health, the economy and the environment. Unfortunately, if the B.C. Liberals’ legislative proposal is any indication, their new water act will not meet the test.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Opinon+Forget+Texas+Wild+West+water/9124578/story.html