Individuals and businesses in British Columbia that use groundwater for non-domestic purposes must apply for a water licence by March 1, 2022. A failure to do so may lead to the loss of water rights (and/or priority of those rights), requirements to pay application fees, and potential offences and penalties.
What licensing is required?
The Water Sustainability Act requires all groundwater users in British Columbia to obtain a water licence if they divert and use groundwater for non-domestic purposes – this includes irrigation, commercial use, and industrial use. Note, however, that water licences are not required for household wells or other uses of groundwater for domestic purposes, like drinking water or watering small gardens.
March 1, 2022 marks the end of the six-year transition period under the Water Sustainability Act. This date was set to allow non-domestic groundwater users to enter the water licensing scheme and its first-in-time, first-in-right priority system. Under this system, licensees are given priority based on the date on which they first used the water.
Existing non-domestic groundwater users that apply for a water licence before March 1, 2022 will be granted a priority date based on the date that the groundwater use first began. Conversely, existing non-domestic groundwater users that apply after March 1, 2022 will be treated as new applicants and given a priority date based on the date of the application.
What happens if you miss the March 1st deadline?
Existing non-domestic groundwater users who have not applied by the March 1, 2022 deadline will be considered unlicensed and must immediately cease using groundwater until they obtain a licence. Anyone who continues to use groundwater for non-domestic purposes without a licence after March 1, 2022 commits an offence under the Water Sustainability Act and may be subject to fines and even imprisonment.
Applications submitted after the deadline will be subject to water licence application fees. These fees are waived for all existing non-domestic groundwater users who submit applications on or before March 1, 2022.
Existing non-domestic groundwater users who miss the deadline will also lose their priority rights based on their historical date of first use, and instead be treated as new users. Losing priority rights is significant because older licenses receive priority access to water during water shortages.
How do you obtain a water licence?
If you are a non-domestic groundwater user in British Columbia, you should apply for a water licence as soon as possible to avoid missing the March 1, 2022 deadline.
As part of this process, you should be prepared to establish the date you first started using groundwater by providing evidence of when your well was first brought into production. This evidence might include records and invoices related to construction, environmental assessment certificates, well maintenance records, photographs, or other corroborating information demonstrating historic use.
Additional guidance on information required to complete an application can be found on the online application portal. The British Columbia government has also prepared an in-depth guide that gives page-by-page instructions on how to complete the application process, as well as a checklist of items that may require research prior to submitting your application.
Need help to protect your water rights?
At Gowling WLG, our environmental law team has been monitoring these changes closely and have assisted many industrial and commercial entities meet their legal obligations under BC's relatively new water regime. If you have questions about applying for a water licence or complying with the Water Sustainability Act, please contact any member of our team.