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Mary Polak, Minister of Environment seen here in Vancouver on June 7, 2013.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The British Columbia government says it will update and replace its century-old water legislation next spring, but critics argue a newly released proposal does not go far enough to protect the province's most precious resource.

Environment Minister Mary Polak released the legislative proposal for the new Water Sustainability Act on Friday. The act would, among other things, ensure B.C. is no longer the only province in the country that does not regulate groundwater. The proposal suggests improvements in seven key areas, including protecting stream health and aquatic environments, and regulating water use during times of scarcity.

"Truly, it is our generation's duty and obligation to be water stewards for generations that follow us," Ms. Polak told reporters.

Putting a price on the groundwater that commercial users, particularly companies that sell bottled water, have been removing free of charge, is a major part of the new plan.

Critics have long complained about this practice. Under the new act, large-scale users would pay about 85 cents per 1,000 cubic metres, although that figure could change after a month-long consultation period.

The same pricing formula is used for the province's surface water and brings in about $7-million each year. At the current rate of consumption, charging for groundwater would produce about $5-million.

When asked if that would be enough, given the amount of money some companies make bottling B.C.'s water and selling it, for instance, Ms. Polak said she is seeking feedback on that from the consultations.

"We're proposing that water be treated equally, be it surface water or groundwater. We're proposing that we do that under the current framework of fees and rentals. And that's one of the things that I'm sure we'll hear back from British Columbians about," she said, adding that the act at the moment is just a proposal.

John Challinor, a spokesman for Nestle Waters Canada, which draws millions of litres of water from B.C. each year, said in an interview the company has always indicated its willingness to pay.

"It's important for the sustainability of water in B.C. that everybody who draws water pays for it," he said.

Spencer Chandra Herbert, the New Democratic Party's environment critic, said the Liberal government's long-delayed proposal is vague and without teeth. He also mocked the suggested pricing system.

"What the right price is, I'm not sure. But I do know that people would say it's insane that a company can make millions selling water bottles and only pay 85 cents," he said.

Andrew Gage, counsel with the West Coast Environmental Law Association, said the government is moving in the right direction in some areas, but "there are enough really significant concerns that we think this isn't the legislation we were looking for."

He said the new law would not do enough to ensure that streams and rivers will continue to to be able to sustain life. His point was seconded by Gwen Barlee, policy director with the Wilderness Committee.

She said the wording in the proposed law to protect the amount and quality of the water in these bodies is not strong enough. "That's weak language, that's not enforceable language," she said.

Ms. Barlee said she was underwhelmed by the proposal and called it a missed opportunity.