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INTERVIEW: Randy Christensen on Groundwater Management in British Columbia and California

Posted on March 23, 2015

The POLIS Creating a Blue Dialogue webinar on March 20th focused on recent California law reforms relating to groundwater management and the potential lessons those could offer for British Columbia under the new Water Sustainability Act. Water Canada interviewed webinar participant Randy Christensen, lawyer for Ecojustice Canada and research associate for the POLIS Water Sustainability Project, ahead of the webinar.

WC: What groundwater management reforms have been initiated in California?

RC: It’s actually three different legislative bills, but together they’re referred to as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Prior to this act, in most places in California there was no regulation of groundwater use. If you wanted to drill a well, you just drilled a well. So what happens in California is when they’re experiencing conditions of drought, groundwater use dramatically increases, and they’re seeing all sorts of problems, like wells drying up and land elevation subsidence because the water supporting the land has disappeared. Prompted by a historic four-year drought, California decided that they have to get some kind of management regime in place that will try and ensure that future groundwater use is going to be sustainable. It’s basically a planning mechanism, and it will require local groundwater agencies to come up with their own sustainability plans. They have to meet certain legislative criteria, and if they don’t, the state’s going to come in and take over the water management.

WC: What are the differences and parallels between California and British Columbia?

RC: From my perspective there are two, maybe three differences between California and British Columbia. One is that California has a lot more people, and a lot more entrenched water problems. They’re also a much drier place than British Columbia. You might say British Columbia is in a more favourable place in terms of water availability. There are also some differences because they’re a U.S. state, meaning the laws are a little bit different, but not as different as you might think.

In terms of similarities, both places are jurisdictions where groundwater was, for the most part, unregulated up until the current time. Both jurisdictions are now saying, “We need to create some sort of regime to manage these things.” Both systems use what’s known as a ‘first in time, first in right’ water allocation system, which is based on historical priority. That priority system relates to surface water usage, but it’s being transferred to groundwater management in both places.

Both places, at least nominally, are also putting sustainability at the core of what they’re doing: both acts contain the word and say the ultimate goal is to create a sustainable system. Both are intending that there’s going to be significant planning and decision-making at the local level, too. That’s one of the main areas where California is out front of British Columbia, so B.C. can look to California on that criteria.

The groundwater usage percentage in both regions is roughly the same, as well, though in California it swings dramatically when they’re in a drought because people fire up wells when they don’t have access to surface water. On average, British Columbia is around 28 per cent of total groundwater usage, and California is around 30 per cent. They’re primarily surface water jurisdictions, but have significant groundwater use, so management deficiencies or groundwater aquifer depletion pose a risk in both places.

WC: What are some areas where British Columbia has an advantage over California or has an opportunity to do things differently?

RC: There are some things that B.C. could do, and have identified they might do in the Water Sustainability Act, that are not options for California because of the legal constraints they operate under. For example, the way that California is choosing to address this problem, it’s going to be quite a while—in the order of 20 years—before you’re going to actually see these binding sustainability plans in place, on the ground, and operating to constrain water. California, in the middle of a drought which is having devastating effects on their economy, is still on a 20-year timeline to get something done. In B.C., because of the way water rights are regarded—as a right or a quasi-property—the province has more leeway to engage in some short-term emergency measures to restrict water usage in emergency situations. For example, if a run of fish might be wiped out in a drought year, or if it looks like there’s not enough water to go around and there’s going to be disputes between users, B.C. can issue some short-term orders which are going to restrict everyone’s water use. This is the plan of the Water Sustainability Act, but it’s not in place yet, and we haven’t seen the regulations. It’s important that when we see the final Water Sustainability Act regulations, there are real options that the government has available to them. B.C. should avoid a situation where, in order to address a drought problem hitting right now, the only solution is a planning exercise which is going to kick in 10 to 15 years from now.

WC: How close are we to seeing the new Water Sustainability Act rolled out?

RC: They’re doing Phase 1 regulations, which will be followed by Phase 2. Representatives have described Phase 1 regulations as things that are absolutely essential for the move to the new management scheme. These will be things to do with transferring the water licenses that exist under the current legislation to the new legislation, and quantifying and giving priority dates to groundwater rights that previously weren’t regulated. Things like environmental flow regulations and emergency orders will be in Phase 2. The rough timeline for Phase 1 is within the next year, and Phase 2 will follow.

Comparatively, in California, they actually got the legislation out the door fairly quickly, but in order to set up local agencies, to bring all the groundwater users together, and to have everybody come to an agreement on how they’re going to deal with limited water availability, it’s going to take quite a long time.

Click here for more information on the POLIS Water Sustainability Project and all upcoming Creating a Blue Dialogue webinars.

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