14 November 2013

BC’s Water Sustainability Act Legislative Proposal: Victory for planning, loss for economics?

A guest post by Tim Shah

I've known David for about three years now. I started reading this blog back in 2008, when I was first developing my interests in water policy, management, and economics. For the last three years, David and I have been exchanging ideas, papers, and opinions regarding ways forward for water management. Now that we live in the same province in Canada (British Columbia), I thought it would be appropriate to offer my thoughts on British Columbia’s new Water Sustainability Act Legislative Proposal.

What is it? Why should you care?
The proposed Water Sustainability Act will “update and replace the existing Water Act” – a 100-year old document. The Province initially wrote a Discussion paper in 2009 titled “Living Water Smart” which outlined four policy goals for the new legislation. Since 2009, the Province ran a public engagement process to hear directly from British Columbians. They received suggestions and ideas in over 2,250 written submissions from individual citizens, First Nations organizations, and stakeholder groups.

The Province is now at their final stage (stage 3), looking to collect final feedback before November 15, 2013, before the proposal goes to the Legislative Assembly in 2014 as a bill for debate before approval. Ok, enough on the context, you can read more here [pdf], or you can be a nerd and read the full proposal (100+ pages) like I did, here [pdf]. You can provide your direct feedback on the Proposal here -- by Friday!

Source: Province of BC, 2013

My thoughts
As shown above, the four initial policy goals have now turned into seven policy direction areas (as an aside, I am really glad that the importance of enabling different water governance approaches is still up for consideration*). For the purposes of a blog post (brevity, folks), I will share some thoughts on numbers 2, 4, and 5.

Policy Direction number 2 ‘Consider Water in Land Use Decisions’
For me, the highlight in this section is the proposal to include Water Sustainability Plans. These plans will replace the Water Management Plans by taking a more proactive approach to watershed issues by “integrating water and land use considerations…” Further, they would help governments respond to a conflict (among users, or between users and the environment), and will be site-specific, recognizing the hydrological diversity of BC. I applaud the design of these plans in their collaborative nature i.e. using advisory committees in plan development.

What I would like to see is better integration of these Water Sustainability Plans with efficiency and conservation measures. Currently, they are identified in the proposal as separate area-based tools depending on the spatial scale (e.g., site, stream or area, watershed or region) that can support water management. Why not allow governments to use these proposed Water Sustainability Plans to address multiple issues such as water conservation, risks to water quality, etc?

Policy Direction number 4 ‘Regulate during scarcity’
The government and the public alike recognize the importance of environmental flow needs**. As you see in figure 2 below, when a watershed experiences a drought, the government framework would adopt “water use efficiency” measures such as encouraging voluntary water conservation. As David and other economists have argued, voluntary water conservation is not an effective tool. I would advise the Province to think more carefully about integrating some aspects of policy direction numbers 2 and 4, specifically, using their proposed Water Sustainability Plans, as a tool, to take swift measures in times of scarcity. For one, Water Sustainability Plans should not be developed after a drought takes place; instead, these plans need to be developed in advance and revisited in the event of a drought. Good planning is inherently proactive, which is the purpose of these proposed Water Sustainability Plans. As such, the plans need to account for more frequent droughts, given climatic change, and identify various measures that could be used to alleviate shortages.

Source: Province of BC, 2013

The Province need not be too prescriptive here, but could outline a number of water pricing structures that could be used when water is scarce. Seasonal pricing would be a start (i.e. price of water rises in the summer months when water reservoir levels are lower). This is not a new idea; jurisdictions in the Okanagan region have used various pricing instruments for at least twelve years and have seen promising results.*** People require a price signal, not a benign request, to reduce their water consumption.

Policy Direction number 5 ‘Improve security, water use efficiency, and conservation’
One part of this policy direction is specifically focused on agriculture. Feedback from the public suggested that there should be a dedicated supply of water for agriculture that would be linked to the agricultural land reserve (ALR). “A reserve would help reduce the erosion of water rights for agriculture through changes or transfers to other uses (e.g., changes of purpose and transfer from irrigation to waterworks or other non-agricultural use."

As I argued in a seminar presentation in graduate school, I think the Province should consider a number of tools to fulfill this policy direction, including the use of a water market. As argued in a paper by Johannus A. Janmaat, a Professor of Economics at UBC-Okanagan:
Using a water market to reallocate some of the water supply among a set of water users is not a substitute for watershed planning, managing in-stream flows, and so on; rather, it is a tool for reallocating water, a tool that can be used both to maximize the value society receives from water that is consumed and to redirect water to purposes such as protecting valuable environmental resources.
His paper illustrates how a water market could work in the Okanagan. I recommend the readers of this blog, in addition to those reviewing feedback at the Province, to read this paper.

Bottom Line: The new Water Sustainability Act will surely mark a significant improvement to its predecessor. Its seven policy directions are promising. However, using and allowing for more economic and market-based approaches will certainly help conserve our water resources for generations to come.

Tim Shah is a community planner living in Victoria, BC. He has been studying and working on water policy issues for the last four years. In 2012, he co-published a report with the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance titled “Cross-Canada Checkup: A Canadian Perspective on our Water Future”.

*The POLIS Project on Ecological Governance has published a series of reports on how BC could improve water governance. See here.
**While I didn’t get into environmental flow needs (EFN) in this post, top water policy experts in Canada believe that EFN is indispensable to good water management. Indeed, Ralph Pentland and Chris Wood argue for this in their new book Down the Drain.
***Kelowna, BC (the largest city in the Okanagan region), adopted volume-based pricing for single-family residential users in the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2000, total annual average per capital consumption dropped 24.29 percent with “the largest decrease occurring in the summer months”. Read the full paper here [pdf]

1 comment:

  1. On "For one, Water Sustainability Plans should not be developed after a drought takes place; instead, these plans need to be developed in advance and revisited in the event of a drought," I'd add/clarify that prices can rise and fall with scarcity. You recommend summer pricing as a pro-active means of suppressing demand for summer watering. That policy can be included in a scarcity-based pricing model that could fluctuate every month (depending on precip., temps., and supplies)


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