Water Use During Scarcity

During times of water scarcity or drought, the B.C. government can apply a number of regulatory options, alone or in combination to protect the rights of water users, essential household needs and aquatic ecosystems.

The Precedence of Rights

Under the “first in time, first in right” (FITFIR) system of precedence of rights, as described in s. 22 of the WSA, the date of precedence establishes who is allowed their full allocation of water first during times of water scarcity or drought. The FITFIR rules in s.22 of the WSA provide the authority to order the reduction or restriction of water diversion and use from a stream (and any hydraulically connected aquifer) or an aquifer (and any other hydraulically connected aquifer) based on the date of precedence.

A stream (as defined in the WSA), its tributaries and any aquifer that is hydraulically connected to the stream will generally be managed as a single resource. An aquifer that is not hydraulically connected to a stream, may however be hydraulically connected to other aquifers and therefore the aquifers may be managed as a single resource. 

Whose use can be restricted under FITFIR

Licensees, holders of use approvals and groundwater users (whether they have an authorization or not) as well as domestic groundwater users can have their water diversion and use restricted or curtailed under a FITFIR order.

The FITFIR system of priority of rights has applied to stream water users for decades. Now that the Water Sustainability Act is in force, groundwater use is being regulated in British Columbia for the first time. The enforcement of FITFIR system will now apply to groundwater diversion and use as well as to stream water diversion and use regardless of whether or not the diversion and use of the groundwater is under an authorization.

Note that in most cases where a water user is authorized to store water for future use, restrictions on the diversion and use of water during times of scarcity will not apply to that stored water.

Protection of Critical Environmental Flow Thresholds

A critical environmental flow threshold is a short-term flow threshold, below which significant or irreversible harm to the stream's aquatic ecosystem is likely to occur.

Once a declaration under s. 86 of WSA of a significant water shortage (SWS) is in place for a designated area, and a critical environmental flow threshold (CEFT) order under s.87 of the WSA is in place for an identified water source within that area, CEFT has precedence over water rights (other than for essential household use as noted below).

Essential Household Use During Periods of Water Scarcity

When FITFIR is enforced on a source due to water scarcity, domestic users may be among those users whose right to divert and use water is restricted. Domestic users will not be prohibited from continuing to divert and use up to 250 litres per day per dwelling for essential household use (EHU).

Fish Population Protection Order

If the flow of water in a stream becomes so low that the survival of a fish population is threatened, a fish population protection order may restrict the uses of water from the stream, its tributaries and hydraulically connected aquifers. Priority can temporarily be given to the recovering fish population above other water uses, regardless of precedence. Prior to giving the order, the Minister must give due consideration to the needs of agricultural users.