Watershed Wanderings by Thea Rodgers, Lake Windermere Ambassadors
The new year has brought new regulations for B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act (WSA). The new act, adopted in February 2016, was intended to replace B.C.’s outdated Water Act of 1909. The new legislation is modernizing historic policies of the Water Act by addressing 21st century water challenges such as climate change, population growth, and resource extraction.
One of the most recent proposals of the WSA encourages new livestock watering practices for low-density grazing on Crown and private range lands in B.C. The proposed regulations would allow water to be diverted from a stream or aquifer for the purpose of livestock watering.
Diverting water from streams is intended to improve water quality and shoreline health by keeping livestock away from open water and stream banks. Poorly-managed stream access by livestock has the potential to destroy vegetation and alter soil and hydrologic properties of the stream. This can worsen downstream water quality and impact the overall health of the ecosystem.
The proposed regulations would allow ranchers to construct minor works that divert water from the stream (known as “off-stream watering”) and groundwater dugouts, subject to specific requirements for ecosystem health and groundwater protection. Direct-access to water by livestock will still be allowed, but will require careful management in order to limit riparian destruction. Sensitive streams and streams with water reservations or fish protection orders will not allow stream diversions or direct-access to water.
These proposed regulations are voluntary, and would not require enforcement. The question arises, then: what is the benefit to the rancher adopting these practices? Firstly, minor diversions for off-stream watering will no longer require a government license, since they are considered a Best Management Practice. This reduces the amount of red tape required for a rancher to install a diversionary structure. Secondly, many ranchers understand the benefits of clean water and healthy riparian zones, want to be good stewards of the environment, and are concerned about ongoing water security for their livestock.
Does this mean livestock producers will start sucking B.C.’s streams dry for off-stream watering? Not likely. Diversionary works can be very costly to implement, and the proposed legislation specifies how unused water is to be returned to the stream. If a diversion is irresponsibly installed and poorly managed, there may be localized impacts to flows or land degradation around the watering area. But if installed and managed according to the guidelines, minor diversions could potentially help improve riparian health and downstream water quality.
Local resident Dave Zehnder is already implementing strategies to reduce grazing impacts on riparian areas in B.C. – including his family’s own 3,000 acre ranch just west of Lake Windermere – by spearheading the Farmland Advantage project. Farmland Advantage contracts farmers to take extraordinary actions to protect the environment and improve watershed health – for instance, restricting direct-access to water and protecting shoreline vegetation using strategic fencing. This program has the potential to deliver significant community benefit, especially where agriculture and urban communities have connected water supplies. Much of the Zehnder Ranch land area, for example, eventually drains into Lake Windermere so his actions have an indirect effect on the entire Lake Windermere community.
B.C. uses approximately 21 million hectares of Crown rangeland and approximately 5 million hectares of private land for livestock grazing. The intention of the new Water Sustainability Act to reduce livestock impacts on water resources is a step in the right direction, because it addresses the mutual water needs of ranchers, ecosystems, and downstream users.
The proposed regulations are not yet final, and may change with public input. If you feel strongly one way or another about these proposed changes, you are encouraged to read the intentions paper put out by the Ministry of
Environment and comment on it before Friday, February 16th (tomorrow) by contacting “email@example.com”, or leaving a comment on the Water Sustainability Act website Blog Post #24, which can be found at engage.gov.bc.ca.
Thea Rodgers is the Program Coordinator for the Lake Windermere Ambassadors Society. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 250-341-6898.