State of B.C. aquifers tough to grasp, minister admits.

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By Bethany Lindsay and Rob Shaw – Vancouver Sun

As B.C. faces drought conditions in its aboveground streams and reservoirs, the province admits it doesn’t have a good understanding of the underground water supply it is seeking to regulate.

It is difficult to tell whether B.C.’s groundwater supply is drying up because while aquifers in some parts of the province are well-mapped, little is known about the groundwater system in other regions, says Environment Minister Mary Polak.

“It’s part of what we’ll look at with the rates we’re charging (for water use) and whether they are sufficient to cover the management of the resource,” she said. The government’s new groundwater rate structure will let big water companies such as Nestlé bottle groundwater for $2.25  per million litres next year. Premier Christy Clark recently ordered a review of the rates following a backlash from the public because Nestlé currently pays just $596.25 for its use of 265 million litres of water annually.

A lack of understanding about the connection between B.C.’s underground and surface water makes it difficult to measure the impact of the current drought, says Steve Conrad, chair of the SFU School of Resource and Environmental Management.

But low water levels above ground usually translate to low levels below ground, he said.

“From where we’ve studied the relationship between streams and droughts in other areas, any decline in stream levels directly impacts the supply and availability of groundwater,” he said. The government does not regulate or charge companies that drill wells to extract groundwater.

Legislation passed earlier this year, which comes into effect Jan. 1, will require licences, fees, limits and reporting.

The government estimates it will earn $11 million from the new rate scheme, some of which will be spent mapping aquifers. B.C. gets 23 per cent of its drinking water from groundwater, yet it has mapped just 1,110 of an estimated “several thousand aquifers” in nine major watersheds.

The new money would expand mapping in “priority aquifers over the next two years” in the Thompson, Okanagan and Kootenay regions, as well as Maple Ridge and Mission in the Lower Mainland, the ministry said.

The government has 187 observation wells used to monitor groundwater levels in some key areas. Longterm data shows that 78 per cent of the test wells have stable or increasing water levels, while nine per cent show a large rate of annual decline and 13 per cent show moderate decline.

There are only 15 monitoring wells in the lower Fraser Valley to test water levels in unconfined aquifers, where gravel and sand allows rainwater to penetrate the ground and refill the aquifer, said Hans Schreier, a University of B.C. professor emeritus.

B.C. generally lacks good data outside the Fraser Valley and Okanagan, he said. NDP environment critic SpencerChandra Herbert blamed inaction and a lack of stable funding for stalled progress on mapping and monitoring aquifers. “The province’s knowledge of aquifers and groundwater is fairly abysmal,” said Chandra Herbert.

Although the government’s new groundwater regulations are a good step, the rates should be far higher and there should be water meters, block rates and other incentives to convert use in households, said Schreier.

“Some of these government agencies are worried if they charge enough that it’s becoming a commodity, they are in trouble,” he said. “But it’s totally ridiculous in my view that they are allowing companies to pay so little for a resource.”

Meanwhile, Polak argues the government must walk a fine line between fair groundwater rates and charging so much it will “turn our water into a commodity for sale” across international borders.

Nestlé said it only uses one per cent of available water near Hope. It argues 70 per cent of B.C.’s groundwater is drawn by agriculture, and much of the rest is drawn by municipalities, hydroelectric producers, the oil and gas sector, forestry and mining.

The oil and gas industry is the sole sector that already pays for access to groundwater, says Geoff Morrison, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. He said energy companies pay about $11,000 to the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission per well application.