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Under the Water Sustainability Act industrial bottlers would pay $2.25 per million litres of water.Oleksiy Mark/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The B.C. government announced plans this week to re-examine new legislation that would, for the first time, regulate groundwater use in the province. Under the Water Sustainability Act, slated to take effect next spring, industrial bottlers would pay $2.25 per million litres of water.

Environment Minister Mary Polak said a government analysis determined the rate would recover the costs of the new licensing system – about $11-million a year. However, critics note it is one of the lowest water-rental rates in Canada. And an online petition calling for B.C. to charge "fair rates" has collected more than 225,000 signatures to date.

Deborah Curran, the Hakai professor in environmental law and sustainability at the University of Victoria, spoke with The Globe and Mail about the issue this week, as British Columbia declared a Level 4 drought – the highest – for the South Coast and Lower Fraser regions.

What, in your view, is the crux of the issue?

It's not that groundwater has been free – it's that it's entirely unregulated. We've charged for a long time for the use of water under licence, but we only license surface water. In that sense, the fact that [the government is] now bringing all sources of fresh water under the licensing regime is a huge positive, but we are one of the last jurisdictions – if not the last jurisdiction – to do so.

The second thing is we differentiate under the water regulations all different types of uses and sub-categories of uses and charge them differently. Different types of agricultural users get charged different amounts. Likewise industrial. We take such a coarse view of that. We may have 20 or 30 categories when we could have 200 categories and really peg it to the profitability of a particular industry. We make value judgments within that water regulation. For example, agriculture pays half as much per litre as industry.

That's a value judgment that we make – that our agriculture industry has less profit margin and less ability to pay more, therefore they pay less. It would be an interesting exercise – and I think very fruitful – to say, given a particular water use, what impact does it have in a watershed and what is the ability of that industry to withstand price fluctuations?

Under the Water Sustainability Act, industrial groundwater users will be charged $2.25 per million litres of B.C. groundwater. This is higher than it is currently – free – but still among the lowest water-rental rates in Canada. Is this sufficient?

I don't think it's enough to pay for what we need to do in B.C. to manage water sustainably. We need to fund water sustainability planning in watersheds across B.C. We need to put hundreds more groundwater wells around the province to monitor groundwater use.

We need to create incentives to meter every single domestic user and make sure that every single licence holder monitors and reports on their water use. These are ginormous infrastructure systems that we need to put into place, [and] $2.25 per million litres – I don't think that that is the right price for all of that long-term infrastructure that needs to be put in place. As well, comparatively, it is cheap to do business in B.C. if you have water as an input. In Nova Scotia, you pay upward of $140 per million litres. Quebec's at $70 [per million litres].

What has been missing from the discussion?

The elephant in the room is aboriginal rights to water. In the U.S., they had a decision back in 1908 called the Winters Decision that ruled that all Indian tribes have the oldest water entitlements attached to their reservations. We don't have anything like that in Canada and we don't have any case law where a First Nation has explicitly asserted a right to a specific volume of water. Except for a few of the modern treaties that have very small water entitlements in them, we have unacknowledged aboriginal rights to water across B.C. This is a piece that the province has not yet really come to the table to address as we move into the modern era of water management in B.C. It's going to need to be a very integral part of the conversation.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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