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Wildfires and drought in British Columbia are vivid reminders that even a province known for frequent rain and lush forests cannot take its precious groundwater for granted. That's even more true in the rest of the country.

How much is groundwater worth? Good question. It's high time that Canada and the provinces clarified the economic costs and benefits of the water used by citizens and businesses. B.C.'s Bill 18, the Water Sustainability Act (WSA), is expected to be enacted next year, updating the obsolete 105-year-old Water Act. Its regulations have not been published.

Mary Polak, B.C.'s Minister of the Environment, says that the government has concluded that a fair charge for commerical usage is $2.25 per million litres. The focus of debate has been Nestle Waters Canada's bottled-water plant in the Fraser Valley.

B.C.'s proposed rate sounds like a bargain – try buying a million litres at the grocery store with a two loonies and quarter. But Ontario does not charge much more, and Manitoba charges less than half that price. On the other hand, Nova Scotia charges $145.95 per million litres.

The WSA will establish that the groundwater and streams of B.C. belong to the provincial Crown. In other words, B.C. is both the owner and the regulator. Many Canadians are particularly emotional about water, perhaps because we have so much of it. Decades ago, one survey found that Canadians strongly opposed water sales to the United States, and worried about NAFTA rules in this connection. There continues to be public concern about exports, even though water is too heavy to move conveniently by ship, and pipelines appear to be more trouble than they would be worth.

The real American relevance of water is the bad example set over the years in parts of the Western U.S., where rivers were drained and sometimes dried up to serve distant farms and suburban lawns, without logical pricing to encourage conservation. It's time for Canadians to cease being complacent about our water, and to design well-considered ways to both use and protect it.

In 2009, the Council of Canadian Academies published an excellent report on groundwater, setting out principles that included both conservation and pricing mechanisms. Provincial governments ought to dust it off.

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