Water Licensing & Rights

Last updated on November 15, 2022

A water right is the authorized use of surface water or groundwater. All water in British Columbia is owned by the Crown on behalf of the residents of the province.

If you own land that contains or has access to surface water or groundwater, in most cases you must apply to the province for the right to use the water and pay an annual rental fee for that use.

Water Sustainability Act

In 2016 the provincial government made changes to the rules governing the use of surface water and groundwater. The new Water Sustainability Act (WSA) is designed to protect B.C.'s water supply and make sure it is managed now and in the future.

One of the significant changes introduced by the WSA is that you are now required to be authorized to use groundwater for anything other than domestic use. Regulating groundwater use allows surface water and groundwater to be managed and protected as one interconnected resource, and clarifies the rights of groundwater users.

Learn more about other provincial and federal legislation and guidelines involved in managing our water resources.

Water Protection Act

The Water Protection Act affirms the Province's ownership of surface water and groundwater, and sets limits for bulk water exports.

Licences and Approvals

The right to divert and use surface water or groundwater is authorized by a licence or approval. Licences and approvals are granted in accordance with the statutory requirements of the WSA.

Non-domestic groundwater

If you divert or use groundwater for non-domestic purposes, such as irrigation, commercial or industrial use, you must apply for and obtain a water licence and pay water fees and rentals before the water can be lawfully used, stored or diverted. This change came into force with the WSA on February 29, 2016.

Domestic groundwater

Groundwater that is used for domestic purposes does not require authorization. Domestic purposes include providing for basic household needs as well as for domestic animals and livestock.

Sensitive streams

Certain streams are designated sensitive in order to protect fish populations and habitat. Licences and approvals may be granted on sensitive streams subject to strict terms and conditions.

Unrecorded water

Unrecorded water is water in a stream or aquifer that is not licensed or reserved for other purposes. Unrecorded water may be used without an authorization for domestic needs, mineral prospecting and firefighting. However, you may be required to prove that the water is unrecorded.

Surface runoff

The B.C. Government does not have ownership of surface water that has not yet reached a stream, such as artificially collected precipitation or surface runoff.

Working Around Water

To make changes in and about a stream you must hold a licence, use approval, change approval or give notification. 

Water Reservations and Water Allocation Notations

The provincial government withholds some water from licensing.

Water Use during Scarcity or Drought

During a water shortage or drought, some water rights may be temporarily suspended or altered to make sure that there is enough water to provide for essential needs, and to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems and fish habitat.


Policies have been developed to help guide the management of B.C.'s water.

Water Users' Communities Act

Part 3 of the former Water Act is now the Water Users' Communities Act. This act governs groups of six or more water licensees who join together to construct and maintain a water diversion and storage or delivery system.

Private Water Utilities

Approximately 30,000 households in B.C. are served by privately owned and operated utilities that deliver water for domestic use. Private water utilities have a responsibility to provide safe, clean water under the Water Utility Act and the Utilities Commission Act.

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