Water Sustainability Act Temporary Protection Orders

During times of water scarcity, the Province can issue temporary protection orders under the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) in watersheds where fish populations or the aquatic ecosystem are at risk.

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Why is drought concerning?

Many watersheds in B.C. are experiencing severe drought conditions that are expected to persist or worsen in the coming weeks and months. Current and forecasted drought conditions are more severe and more widespread than in previous years, affecting most basins throughout the province. 

Severe drought conditions pose significant risks to people and communities. These conditions also pose significant risks to fish and fish habitat, including for Pacific salmon and aquatic species at risk. Impacts of drought on fish, fish habitat, and aquatic ecosystems continue to be seen across B.C., including dewatering of fish streams, fish strandings, death of fish, and delayed movement of migrating fish into spawning streams due to low stream flows, high stream temperatures, or dewatered river confluences.

Water licencing and the Water Sustainability Act

Who needs to get a water licence?

Most people in B.C. receive water as a service from their local government or private water utility. These people do not need to hold a water licence, as the licence is instead held by the water provider.

People who divert and use water directly from surface or groundwater sources typically need to hold a water licence. The rules differ depending on whether on the source of the groundwater, and sometimes based on what the water is being used for:

Surface water

People who divert water from a surface water source (e.g., stream, lake, pond or spring) and use it for a non-domestic purpose are required to hold a water licence. A licence for domestic use of surface water is not required if the source of water has abundant supply (i.e., all licensed users can access their right to water and there is still “unrecorded” water left over). Domestic users are strongly encouraged to get a water licence to protect their water access, as the source of water may not always have abundant supply (e.g., due to drought, climate change, or other users acquiring water licences on that source).


People who divert water from a groundwater source (i.e., an aquifer) and use it for a non-domestic purpose must apply for and acquire a water licence. Domestic users of groundwater are exempt from licensing requirements. People who were using groundwater for a non-domestic purpose on or before February 29, 2016 were required to apply for their existing groundwater use before March 1, 2022. These “transitioning users” may continue diverting water consistent with their historical use as they await a decision on their application. Any “new users” (i.e., people whose use began on or after March 1, 2016) of groundwater for a non-domestic purpose, or people who did apply before the deadline must hold a water licence before they can divert and use water.

Don’t I own my water rights?

The Province of B.C. manages the diversion and use of freshwater (surface and groundwater) through the Water Sustainability Act (WSA). A water licence grants the licensee the right to use water from a stream or aquifer in accordance with the terms and conditions set out in the water licence and any orders that have been issued by designated officials under the WSA. A water licence does not guarantee that the water is always going to be available. During times of scarcity water licence holders may not be able to access the volume of water identified in their water licence and alternative plans are encouraged. 

What if water is needed for firefighting?

Water used to extinguish a fire or contain and control the spread of a fire remains exempt by provisions under the Water Sustainability Act. These orders will not apply to water that is used to control the spread of wildfires.

Temporary Protection Orders under the Water Sustainability Act and considerations

I have a water licence, but I’m being told to reduce or stop my water use. Why?

The Province of B.C. manages the diversion and use of freshwater (surface and groundwater) through the Water Sustainability Act (WSA). Under the WSA, a person must not divert or use water unless they have acquired a private right through an authorization (e.g., licence or use approval), or unless that diversion and use is authorized under the Act or its regulations. Any diversion and use of water under the WSA remains subject to the Act, and its regulations, including any direction or order administered under the legislation.

As drought conditions progress, many water licence holders have been asked to voluntarily reduce their water use. In some situations, where voluntary water conservation did not stabilize stream flows for fish and wildlife needs, the minister issued Fish Population Protection Orders under section 88 of the WSA to temporarily suspend the rights of some licensees to protect the survival of threatened fish populations. These decisions were made in accordance with the legislation and with due consideration to the needs of agricultural users. We appreciate the efforts water users made to voluntarily conserve water, and their compliance with the fish population protection orders.

Why did the water shut down not follow first-in-time, first-in-right (FITFIR)?

There are multiple tools under the Water Sustainability Act that can be used to respond to drought including Section 86/87 Declarations of significant water shortage and Section 88 Fish population protection orders.

Section 86/87 orders allow the minister to use FITFIR to curtail water use to protect the critical environmental flow threshold of a stream.

Section 88 allows the minister to issue an order that can temporarily suspend the rights of specified water users, regardless of FITFIR, but only after giving due consideration to the needs of agricultural users.

What information is used to support the decision to issue a Temporary Protection Order in my area?

The rationale supporting the recommendation for a Temporary Protection Order packages can be broken into several categories: fish population information; flow needs for fish population survival; current and projected flow in the stream of concern; water use in the stream, its aquifers and hydraulically-connected aquifers; recommended curtailment of water users to restore flows (includes analysis of surface water and groundwater use that is having the most significant impact on streamflow); and agricultural needs. The rationale also includes a summary of the communications with licensees, and any supporting information provided by other parties (e.g., Indigenous Nations, Fisheries and Oceans Canada).

How does the Province monitor water levels?

Water levels are monitored in multiple ways. The Ministry of Forests (FOR) River Forecast Centre monitors Water Survey of Canada gauges. The data collected by River Forecast Centre supports provincial recommendations for drought levels and advisories. FOR staff in regions also monitor the Water Survey of Canada gauges and take necessary manual streamflow measurements as concerns on streams and rivers increase.

Why are my neighbours allowed to continue to irrigate?

The rationale package supporting the recommendation for the use of a Temporary Protection Order includes sections pertaining to recommended curtailment of water users to restore flows and the agricultural needs analysis. In developing these analyses, ministry staff strive to find the best balance between restoring flows to protect the survival of fish populations, and minimizing impacts to water users. Consequently, not all water users are necessarily affected by a temporary protection order. For example, in the Salmon River watershed, the use of water for market vegetables accounted for less than 3% of total water use, and if included in the curtailment envelope, would have increased agricultural economic losses by about 30%. Water used for purposes like domestic use and livestock watering was not included in the order because it would have had a negligible impact on flow recovery and would have caused more significant societal and economic impacts.

Why are farmers targeted by these Orders but not industry? What about forestry, mining, etc.?

All water users in the watershed are reviewed when considering a temporary protection order. In most cases where TPOs have been issued, the predominant use was agriculture (for example, 95% of water use in the Salmon River watershed is attributed to agriculture). However, industrial and mining purposes have been included in other temporary protection orders where that type of use of water was present and where it was determined that curtailing that use would have an appreciable impact on streamflow recovery.

Why are forage crops targeted by these Orders?

Forage crops include grass for hay and silage, alfalfa, and field corn. It could also include pastures used for grazing. Forage crops tend to require a significantly higher volume of water to irrigate as compared to non-forage crops such as tree fruits, market vegetables, viticulture and berries.

Water Sustainability Act section 88 Fish Population Protection Orders allow for the selection of specific water uses to quickly achieve streamflow returns for the protection of fish populations, after considering the needs of agricultural users.

As agricultural producers are typically the dominant water user (by volume) in watersheds that have had these Orders, agricultural users have primarily been impacted. Irrigation of forage crops is one of the most water-intensive agricultural water uses, so restricting the irrigation of forage crops helps return the most flow to the impacted streams.

What about the financial impacts to family farms and businesses?

The Province of B.C. understands the value of food and the potential impacts Temporary Protection Orders can have on family farms and business. Affected farmers can access programs, such as the federal-provincial AgriStability program, which helps producers with margin-related income declines. The provincial Ministry of Agriculture and Food, in collaboration with the federal government, is also ensuring that producers who did not enroll in AgriStability by the April 30 deadline are still eligible for late participation and can receive financial assistance. Producers must have declared farm income for tax purposes to be eligible to enroll in AgriStability.

To help farmers and producers access hay and feed, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food is working with the BC Cattlemen’s Association (BCCA) on the new Access to Feed program. Through this program, the BCCA will match B.C. farmers with sellers of hay and feed across Canada and the western United States.

The Agricultural Water Infrastructure Program is also currently accepting applications.

Communication with licensees

What steps were taken in the lead up to this decision? Did you warn water licensees?

At a provincial level, the River Forecast Centre released monthly bulletins showing the evolving drought conditions. Specific public bulletins released in June 2023 advised of the lower than normal snowpack. On June 13th, Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Minister Bowinn Ma called on residents, farmers, businesspeople and industrial operators to take urgent steps to reduce water use. 

As drought conditions worsened, Ministry of Forests regional staff increased monitoring in watersheds with high fisheries values and high water use. Ministry of Forests staff worked closely with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and Indigenous Nations to understand the demands on the watershed and to try and balance the needs as best as possible through voluntary reduction requests. The province mailed “early warning drought notices” to licensees in systems where flows were continuing to decrease and where the survival of fish populations was becoming threatened. The intent of these letters was to raise awareness concerning the increasing drought conditions in the watershed, request voluntary reductions of water consumption, and advise licensees that further regulatory action may be considered if flows continued to worsen. 

How does the Province notify water licensees when a Temporary Protection Order is issued?

Temporary Protection Orders are delivered through a variety of methods. Some orders were hand-delivered by Natural Resource Officers and other government staff, especially to large volume users, to allow for the most impact and benefit to streamflow. Some orders were mailed through Canada Post, whereas others were left at licensees’ residences. Section 117 of the Water Sustainability Act specifies requirements concerning delivery and publication of documents and information.

Where can I find information about stream flow and groundwater levels in my area?

B.C. gathers data on water from across the Province and assembles it in one location called the Drought Information Portal. This portal includes data from Water Survey of Canada stream gauges, from the Provincial Groundwater Observation Well Network, and from the River Forecast Centre. This information is used in setting the Drought Levels for the water basins in the Province. 

Connect to the Drought Information Portal

How does the province enforce regulatory action?

Are Natural Resource Officers and Provincial staff allowed on my private property?

Yes, the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) section 89(1) establishes that Natural Resource Officers and other provincial staff designated under the WSA may enter onto any land or premises for the purpose of exercising powers or performing duties. Under this authority, Natural Resource Officers and Provincial staff must not enter into private dwellings except with the consent of the occupant or as authorized by a warrant.

What actions will take place to ensure compliance? How will you enforce the Order?

If an order under the Water Sustainability Act (WSA) is not followed, regulatory action will be taken, including significant fines. Compliance and enforcement staff are actively monitoring compliance.

A person who commits an offence under s. 106 of the Act is liable on conviction to the following:

  • In the case of an offence that is not a continuing offence, a fine of not more than $200 000 or imprisonment for not longer than 6 months, or both
  • (b) In the case of a continuing offence, a fine of not more than $200,000 for each day the offence is continued or imprisonment for not longer than 6 months, or both

Incidents of suspected non-compliance with the order can be reported to the Province’s Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) line at 1 877 952-7277 or online through the Report a Natural Resource Violation form

Drought effects on the aquatic ecosystems

Are B.C. and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) working together to respond to drought?

B.C. and DFO are working together, and with other agencies and levels of government, First Nations, non-governmental organizations, and others. The groups are working to develop and share information and educational materials and take action to support priority fish populations impacted by drought, including relocating stranded salmon in dewatered streams, providing or improving fish passage in low flow streams, creating cold water refuge habitats, and implementing and enforcing fisheries closures to protect at-risk stocks. 

What steps are B.C. and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) taking to respond to drought?

In this severe drought year, the Province is working collaboratively with DFO to identify, monitor, and where possible reduce the impacts of drought on fish, fish habitat, and aquatic ecosystems, particularly in streams that support Pacific salmon or aquatic species at risk. Specific areas of collaboration include:

  • Establishing watch lists for streams and fish populations at greatest risk of drought impacts
  • Monitoring stream flows, stream temperatures, and fish numbers, distribution, and responses to drought and flow management on watch list and other fish streams
  • Defining critical flow thresholds for watch list streams and fish populations at greatest risk due to combined effects drought and water use
  • Advising B.C. water managers when curtailment of water use should be considered to limit impacts

What fish populations are of concern and why?

Given the unprecedented scale and severity of drought conditions in B.C. this year, impacts to fish, fish habitat, and aquatic ecosystems cannot be avoided. However, by working collaboratively, together and with others, B.C. and DFO hope to lessen these impacts and allow drought-impacted populations to persist in the longer term.

Fish populations impacted by drought include species of economic, social, and cultural importance to British Columbians, including First Nations, such as chinook salmon, coho salmon, pink salmon, kokanee salmon, bull trout, rainbow trout, and steelhead. Others are fish species of particular conservation concern, such as endangered Nooksack dace and Salish sucker. Many fish populations impacted by drought also experience and respond to other significant environmental stressors across multiple life stages, and for Pacific salmon in both marine and freshwater environments. These stressors, individually and in combination, already threaten the survival of some fish populations, so the additional effects of severe drought are of great concern but difficult to predict.