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Water Worries: Calls to protect water with lead agency mounting in Okanagan

In search of better water protection, Okanagan experts sift through a complex web of provincial regulations
A view inside the Duteau Creek water treatment facility. (Contributed)

A recent snafu between a Vernon forestry company and the Regional District of North Okanagan has sparked questions around how to better protect water sources under B.C.’s current legislation.

And it turns out, work is well underway to find answers to those questions.

In April, Tolko announced plans to log an area 500 metres above the Greater Vernon drinking water intake, which supplies nearly 60 per cent of the population. But on May 4, those plans were walked back after the RDNO published a plea to halt the project, citing threats to the water source identified by a hydrological assessment.

At the time, RDNO board chair Kevin Acton said the regional district will look to urge the province to amend legislation “so that a dangerous situation like this cannot happen again,” while thanking Tolko for its voluntary withdrawal from the concerned area.

But making sense of the complex scheme of regulations that govern water and forestry is a tall task: there were 23 different pieces of legislation that oversaw B.C. drinking water in 2019, according to an Auditor General’s report from that year.

Fortunately, the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB) has been looking closely at that web of regulations for the past year.

Kellie Garcia is the OBWB’s policy and planning specialist, who has a bird’s eye view of water practices from Armstrong to Osoyoos. A year ago she spearheaded a committee of more than 50 stakeholders to produce a water source protection toolkit, which is set to launch in the coming weeks.

READ MORE: Province urged to address legislation gaps after North Okanagan drinking water threatened by logging

Where forestry regulation is concerned, the most influential is the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA), which was formed in the wake of a 1990s effort to clear the red tape around the industry.

The result is a regulatory system led by the forestry industry. Under the FRPA, once a Forest Stewardship Plan has been drafted by a licence holder and approved by the government, the options are scant for providers like Greater Vernon Water to have their input.

This isn’t the case in most other parts of Canada, Garcia said, and it can restrict a water purveyor’s ability to fulfil its chief mandate: to provide safe, quality water in a timely fashion.

“Most of the other provinces do have a water agency that is kind of the umbrella to all the other organizations to make sure that water takes a front seat, but B.C. doesn’t have that,” Garcia said.

Instead, water is managed primarily by the Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Ministry – a resource-based government body – along with the ministries of health and environment.

Kevin Kriese, chair of the Forest Practices Board (an independent watchdog), says he’s confident the current NDP government is interested in changing how water is managed, given its election commitment to create a watershed security strategy.

He says one promising change already took place last year, when B.C.’s engineering and forestry associations agreed to jointly oversee how watershed assessments are completed, following a recommendation by the board.

Kriese added the board is now preparing more recommendations for government which are “a number of months out.”

Meanwhile, the OBWB has already published a list of recommendations for improved water oversight, which includes pushing for a lead water agency to be responsible for all aspects of water source protection.

“Compared with other provinces, B.C. seems to lag behind in comprehensive watershed management planning,” reads the March 2021 position paper, which cites Manitoba, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec as examples of effective provincially-led frameworks.

For Garcia, having a single lead agency will help address accountability gaps when problems arise between forest activities and water sources.

“It goes back to just that lack of water-centric thinking and planning, and a lack of coordination between the different agencies about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”

READ MORE: Greater Vernon Water bracing for dry summer

Brendan Shykora
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Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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