Water abundance an Okanagan myth, says OBWB

Expanded regulations surrounding the use of groundwater are needed in B.C., says the executive-director of the Okanagan Basin Water Board.

Anna Warwick Sears told Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen directors Thursday there is a “myth of abundance” regarding water resources in the Okanagan. The valley‘s large lakes give a false impression there‘s plenty of water available.

As more and more developers turn to wells and other groundwater sources, there is a growing danger of depleted aquifers and surface water resources.

The OBWB is currently conducting a $2.4-million water supply and demand project, with a Phase 2 strategy expected by the end of this year. It includes groundwater assessment studies which are also being carried out.

However, Sears said the study doesn‘t specifically deal with individual problem areas.

“We‘re really looking at groundwater at the scale of the watershed as a whole… and the gross level of extraction that‘s happening within those aquifers,” she said.
“But it‘s not narrowing in on what‘s happening within any specific aquifer, which is where a lot of people‘s concerns are having to do with their well levels dropping and how much their neighbours are using.”

Sears said the water board met with Ministry of Environment representatives in December to discuss possible improvements to groundwater legislation.

Although there are some regulations currently in place, Sears said few of them pertain to the amount of water which can be drawn from an aquifer.

“There are regulations that have to do with prohibitions against polluting groundwater as well as regulations for registry of drinking water wells,” she said. “But generally it‘s light. There‘s no regulation on quantity.”

The only regulations regarding water extraction deal with very large volumes for large-scale residential developments or agricultural operations.

Sears suggested legislation is needed to put more control over local groundwater issues into the hands of local governments so they can better control development and monitor how much water is being utilized.

She noted in many areas of the Okanagan, groundwater also feeds local creeks and streams.

“If the groundwater users are sucking that water out, using it for irrigation, often times the stream levels will drop,” she said.

When that occurs, the province can order water licence holders on the creeks to reduce consumption, but no similar directive is made for the groundwater users.

Sears said the OBWB would like to see regulations in place which would require everyone to report the amount of water they consume, not just surface water users. However, rather than put the onus on individual homeowners, she suggested licences should be required by major consumers – large residential developments or agricultural operations.

The issue has far-ranging environmental impacts as well.

“Groundwater and surface water are inter-connected. Even the deep water aquifers are feeding the lake system,” she said. “It‘s fed by the same rainwater that falls on the rest of the basin.”

The Okanagan Basin Water Board receives its local funding from the three regional districts in the valley. It also receives extensive senior government funding for selected programs and studies.