Mopping up British Columbia’s water management mess is now the responsibility of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Minister Nathan Cullen.
Cullen takes on the water file, along with several other new duties, in a significant transfer of responsibilities from the Ministry of Forests.
Premier David Eby said Tuesday the government heard after the disastrous summer of widespread drought and record-setting forest fires that it was confusing for farmers and others who depend on water that regulations were in multiple ministries, but not the one that has “water” in its title.
It was also challenging for the government itself to make sure its strategies around water were integrated, Eby said. “Water is not separate from land, it’s not separate from land use planning, and all that work is happening within our Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Ministry.”
The government created the new ministry in April 2022 and Cullen has headed it since December.
On Friday the government announced it had transferred responsibility for some or all of the Water Sustainability Act, Land Act, Wildlife Act and 24 other acts from Forests to the new ministry “to align with government priorities of reconciliation, resource stewardship and strong, sustainable economic development for people and communities.”
Cullen said that the transfer is the latest step in a process put in motion under former premier John Horgan.
“It’s continuation of the changes to the natural resource sector we started almost two years ago now,” Cullen said. “It’s very much what we heard in response from industry, First Nations, environment groups, just in having more clear accountability, line of sight, on some of these really big issues.”
The ministry is well equipped to collaborate with Indigenous partners, stakeholders and other government ministries, Cullen said. “It’s a positive move.”
BC Green Party MLAs supported the transfer, with leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau saying in a statement it has “the potential of being a turning point in B.C.’s history.”
“Water protection is what pulled me into politics,” Furstenau said. “Water connects everything, yet for too long decisions about land use in the province have been made in silos, ignoring the cumulative impacts on watersheds, and putting long-term sustainability of our ecosystems at risk.”
Communities are desperate for watershed protection and will be watching the next steps, she said. “We need to see this announcement backed with more resources and funding. Now is the time to build the on-the-ground capacity in every part of the province and for decision-making to move to local communities and Indigenous leaders.”
One area that will need attention is the groundwater licensing system that some observers have described as a “train wreck.” When the deadline passed in 2022 for an estimated 20,000 existing commercial water users to apply for a licence, some 12,000 had failed to do so and lost their legal right to use groundwater.
“I’m getting briefed up right now on what the current state is, how many folks have gone through the licensing process, what we need to do to bring more people in,” Cullen said. “Given the historic and unprecedented drought season that we had, the interest from the public, and from industry, is very high for us to get a good handle on what’s happening with respect to groundwater in B.C. and it only makes sense that a ministry with ‘water’ in the name is helping lead the charge on this.”
Cullen said he isn’t ready to specify what he thinks needs to happen. “I want to hear directly from staff where the frustrations have been, where the opportunities are, what we can do differently,” he said. “What types of investments do we need, because we’re responsible for that, but also our drought management, flood mitigation, the diking systems, and that’s an increasingly important part of our public infrastructure.”
With the reality of climate change and the effects the province is seeing, the government, industry and everybody that draws water from the ground and rivers need to adapt, Cullen said.
There are already examples in the province, he said, of watersheds where long-standing tables bring together community members, ranchers, foresters, First Nations, fish biologists and others to discuss the water situation and make plans before there’s a drought or flood. More communities would benefit from similar tables, he said.
“Every watershed, every community, might have a different way of approaching this conversation, but I think there are some inherent consistencies,” said Cullen. “We know that bringing people together, understanding everyone’s perspective and interests on this, as well as understanding the role the province does hold and maintain in terms of making sure that we protect water sources for some really vital interests.”
Eby said that with extended droughts over several summers it has become clear that water is an issue for the province.
In the short term there needs to be work with communities to improve the ability to store water when it’s available, he said. It’s also important to have “good clear communications well in advance so that farmers and other water users can plan accordingly, we can protect fish, we can protect our streams and rivers, and also do our best to support our very important industries like agriculture.”
Longer term, he said, there needs to be more work around watershed planning, dedicating resources to protect watersheds, protecting community water supplies and involving communities in discussions about priorities for water use.
The government’s announcement of the transfer said the changes allow the Ministry of Forests to focus on transforming the forest sector and strengthening B.C.’s wildfire response and mitigation.