Water Stewardship

Ground Water Issues in British Columbia

Statistics compiled in 1981, showed that 22 percent (600,000 persons) of the province's population depended upon ground water for water supply. Although the volume of ground water extracted amounts to only ten percent of total water consumption in British Columbia, because of the large quantities of water used in the province, this represents 25 percent of all the ground water extracted in Canada. The largest use of ground water in the province is by industry (55%), followed by agricultural (20%), municipal (18%) and rural domestic (7%). Certain areas are entirely dependent upon ground water for water supplies.

Numerous ground water resource conflicts currently exist in various parts of the province such as:

  • well interference where large capacity wells lower water levels and yields of neighbouring wells, (e.g. Surrey, Mill Bay, Saanich);
  • artesian wells which are allowed to flow freely thereby wasting water and lowering water levels and yields in neighbouring wells, (e.g. Surrey, Okanagan, Gulf Islands, Saanich);
  • ground water-surface water conflicts, particularly where surface water is fully licensed and ground water extraction depletes surface flows and availability, (e.g. Cherry Creek / Kamloops, Chimney Creek / Williams Lake, Kalamalka Lake);
  • excessive ground water withdrawals in coastal areas resulting in salt water intrusion and quality degradation, (e.g. Gulf Islands, Saanich);
  • poor well construction practices which result in degradation of ground water quality and contamination, (e.g. Gulf Islands, Saanich);
  • health risks, public safety and environmental hazards associated with uncapped and abandoned wells, (e.g. Lower Mainland and Okanagan Valley).

In some areas of the province, shallow ground water is also susceptible to non-point or diffuse sources of contamination from various activities, such as the unregulated use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides combined with excessive irrigation practices, and the application, disposal and storage of animal wastes on land. Elevated levels of nitrate nitrogen in excess of the Canadian Drinking Water Quality Guideline of 10 mg/L, for example, have been found in a significant number of domestic wells in the Langley, Abbotsford, Osoyoos and Grand Forks areas of the province. Point sources of contamination such as abandoned landfills, chemical spills and former industrial sites are also causing water quality degradation in some areas. 

In 1982, the Ministry of Environment (now called Ministry of Environment) (Water Protection Branch), in cooperation with the well drilling industry, prepared Guidelines for Minimum Standards in Water Well Construction, Province of British Columbia. Compliance with these standards ensures that water wells are drilled and finished in a manner that protects the health, safety and welfare of the public and the integrity of the resource.

These have been adopted in varying degrees by water well drillers, consultants in the industry and local governments but are not mandatory on a province-wide basis.

In 1986, the Provincial Apprenticeship Board approved the designated trade of Water Well Driller and the regulations for trade qualification and certification by the Ministry of Labour (now the Ministry of Advanced Education and Job Training).

Water well drilling is a recognized trade in the province, and individuals meeting the specified qualifications can hold a Certificate of Qualification as a Water Well Driller. Certification, however, is not mandatory for an individual to work at the trade. An approved training program for Water Well Drillers was finalized in 1986 under the auspices of the Ministry of Advanced Education and Job Training. The program was developed by a Trade Advisory Committee comprised of representatives of the Ministry of Environment (Water Management Branch), the B.C. Water Well Drilling Association and the Ministry of Labour.

Well construction is addressed in Guidelines for Minimum Standards in Water Well Construction developed by the Water Protection Branch and the British Columbia Water Well Drilling Association. Well drillers may also apply for certification as a Water Well Driller. Both of these measures are entirely voluntary.

Many old water wells as well as other forms of excavation such as test wells and foundation test holes, may not be properly capped or filled in, thereby posing a potential safety hazard.

In some areas, well interference problems and impacts on surface water resources are serious. Further well drilling and surface water allocation in these areas would threaten the integrity of the entire hydrologic regime, severely impacting individual water users and ecologic systems dependent upon the water resource. Ground water maintains baseflows in rivers and streams during periods of drought and is a critical component to maintaining fisheries habitat and spawning areas.

Many ground water quality problems emanate from inappropriate land-use practices directly over susceptible aquifers: e.g., over-application and runoff of agricultural fertilizers and chemicals which may result in high nitrates and pesticides in ground water; land disposal of sewage effluent; chemical spills or leakage from storage tanks and transportation facilities; poorly sited landfills; and incorrect waste disposal practices at former industrial sites. Infiltration of rainfall, snowmelt and streamflow in ground water recharge areas may carry contaminants to ground water especially in sensitive areas where water tables are shallow and surface soils consist of permeable sand and gravel deposits. Areas of ground water discharge and immediate environs surrounding these sites (e.g., natural springs and wetlands), need to be protected from sources of contamination.

Regulation of such land-based activities currently falls under the mandates of the Environmental Management Act, the Pesticide Control Act and the Health Act.

Property owners may carry out activities at or near well heads that can threaten the ground water resource. Activities near wells such as storing or mixing chemicals, filling pesticide application containers, applying chemicals through irrigation systems or dumping waste materials can result in ground water contamination. Unused wells in some instances have been used to dispose of various wastes.

Ambient ground water quality is being monitored by the Water Protection Branch in a number of observation wells in the settled areas of the province, and in specific aquifers where contamination from non-point sources is evident. Point sources of contamination are monitored under the Environmental Protection Program. Water supply systems dependent upon ground water are tested by the purveyors and the Ministry of Health. The Water Quality Check Program administered by the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks provides for laboratory analysis of individual water supply sources for homeowners at a subsidized cost.

Some aquifers show evidence of ground water contamination to a point of being impaired or unfit for use, particularly for drinking water purposes. Sources of contamination may be due to natural levels of constituents or from human-induced sources. From an allocation perspective, ground water use without provisions for adequate treatment should not be allowed in areas of known risk to human health. Areas of known or suspected contamination need to be identified and designated as such.

Ground water quantity information in the form of well records are currently submitted by well drillers to the Water Protection Branch on a voluntary basis. A similar situation exists for ground water assessment reports prepared by consulting firms in the ground water industry. Well record information is compiled, processed and stored in paper files, on microfiche and on computer systems.

A network of 150 observation wells throughout the province provides current and historic information (20 to 30 years in some cases), on water level fluctuations in the major areas of ground water use.

Ground water quality information in the form of laboratory analyses obtained from the Water Quality Check Program and other sampling activities is available for several thousand wells, but because of incomplete documentation of sampling sites in many cases and limited resources for processing this information, much of the data has not been linked to other databases on wells and specific geographical locations.

On June 21, 1995, The Water Protection Act received Royal Assent. Section 3 (2) states: "The property in and the right to the use, percolation and any flow of ground water, wherever ground water is found in British Columbia, are for all purposes vested in the Crown in right of British Columbia and are conclusively deemed to have always been vested in the Crown in right of British Columbia."

The Drinking Water Protection Act, 2001.

Our vision is a sustained and healthy ground water resource.