Environment spokesman thinks source protection is needed

September 18, 2009

An authority to deal with water issues in the Okanagan Valley is the ultimate answer to the current jurisdictional issues, says the parliamentary secretary for Water Supply and Allocation, John Slater.

Such an authority could not only handle conflicts among users in the valley, but could also take on some of the jurisdiction of a variety of provincial ministries in order to operate effectively, he said.

He was responding to a number of questions from those attending the first annual general meeting of the Okanagan Basin Water Board, held Friday in Lake Country.

More than 60 politicians and water managers from the valley turned out to discuss water, and in the end, many had questions for Slater who was repeatedly referred to as “our water secretary.”

He reports to environment minister Barry Penner and is in a new portfolio created following his election last spring.

Slater is a former chairman of the OBWB and former mayor of Osoyoos.

He said the environment ministry is currently embarking on a review of the Water Act, and he thinks there’s a need to look at stronger source protection as well as coordination of groundwater.

At the moment, he said there are a number of ministries with some interest in water, including agriculture, forestry, environment, health and mines. “Each ministry has its own focus,” he admitted.

In order for a regional water authority to work, the different ministries would each have to give up some jurisdiction so that water issues could be dealt with locally. For instance, he said requirements for a range lease on Crown land then could include the need to protect the environment and watershed.

He said he’s optimistic such changes can be made ultimately, but he said there’s no timeline for the Water Act review. During the first few months in his new post, Slater said the environment minister “has given me a lot of room.”

Questions from the audience following the board presentations included one about conflicts amongst the various government ministries over water issues, and the frank question: “Is there any hope of government speaking with one voice on water issues?”

Slater responded it’s important, but a strong lobby is needed from the civic level of government and the public.

He said at the upcoming Union of B.C. Municipalities convention there will be a water workshop put on by the provincial government, so politicians can put water concerns and questions to the government.

West Kelowna Mayor Doug Findlater said a key issue in his district is source protection of water. He questioned why the tourism ministry would give grants to motorized recreation groups to encourage them to recreate in domestic watersheds.

Interior Health and the municipality are fighting the battle against such recreational developments all alone, he said.

Noting that the major watersheds in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island are fenced off from the public, Slater said he would look into the question.

Brian Eli commented that he didn’t hear anything about wildlife in all the talk about water needs. “It’s typical for us to be concerned about hay, but not about water for wildlife,” he said.

In opening the meeting, Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick warned, “We’re at a tipping point, but the OBWB is conducting good science to help in making good decisions.”

OBWB chairman Stu Wells, mayor of Osoyoos, said the warning bells rang in 2003 when Summerland’s creek ran dry and the environment ministry said the town had to leave enough water in the creek for fish.

Current initiatives such as the water supply and demand study which should be completed this year, started as a result of that crisis year.

“A limiting factor in human development is water,” he warned.

OBWB executive director Anna Warwick-Sears said if we truly used Okanagan Lake as a reservoir, our new floating bridge would be a suspension bridge and lakeshore property owners would be looking down a steep cliff at the lake.

“We only have access to the top part of that lake,” she warned.