Who's Responsible for Your Water Supply
I recently was asked some questions about water governance. Who controls water supplies? Who supplies water in Canada? How do you go about getting water to your house or community? When does a water supply need a community water supply permit?
Here's my best shot at some simple answers. (Note that this information is general and based on my familiarity with water regulations in western Canada, particularly BC, so please get in touch with us to discuss what's specific to your area!)
If you live in a city or town, your water supply comes from the municipality. There's a central water source for your entire community -- often a large lake or reservoir, or a series of high-producing water wells. That water is treated and tested to make sure it's safe to drink, and then it's distributed to the users within the community through a series of pipes and pumps. Water use is often metered and residents may pay for water according to use, or the cost for water supply may be rolled into municipal property taxes.
While an urban community's water supply is managed by its municipality, in Canada it's the provinces that manage freshwater sources, control water rights, and manage allocations for water within their boundaries. Municipalities, businesses, and industries need a water license from the province to divert freshwater from the environment (aquifers, lakes, reservoirs) and may have to pay for a fee for the amount diverted. In addition to managing water sources, provinces may set standards for drinking water quality; however, Health Canada (federal) maintains an exhaustive set of drinking water guidelines and provinces often defer to those rather than set their own.
If you live outside of a city or town, and you don't have municipal water service coming to your property, whether it's your home or business, you're responsible for providing your own water supply. [Wait. What?] Yes, as part of the cost of developing your rural property, you must also create your own personal or private water utility. You're responsible for securing the supply, treating and testing the water to ensure it's safe for use, and creating the distribution from the source to your home or business.
Rural households are allowed to take water for domestic use as a basic water right. So, you, as a private water user, taking water for domestic use and within the domestic-use water rate (amount over time), don't have to pay the province a fee to divert water from a stream, lake, or aquifer for domestic use or have a license. However, you are limited to the amount you can take.
If you're a business in a rural area, supplying your own water, you need a permit to divert water from a stream, lake, or aquifer. Commercial water use is licensed so that water resources can be carefully managed.
People sourcing their own water outside of urban areas often use groundwater. Groundwater is naturally filtered and is typically safer to use as drinking water than surface water, which often contains bacteria and other harmful microbes. Water well drilling companies are typically familiar with the local aquifers, their water yields and depths. They drill and complete wells, test them for yield, and file a water well report with the province to document your well. [This documentation helps the province manage groundwater resources. Even if your well doesn't need a license, registration allows the province to know who's using what aquifer for domestic purposes when they are considering applications for commercial licenses and helps them understand if aquifers are being overstressed from increasing development.]
Where adequate groundwater isn't available or the quality is unsuitable, rainwater is another source of freshwater. Rain and other precipitation is collected off elevated hard surfaces, like your roof, then cleaned and filtered and stored in tanks. Piping and pumps transfer the water to your home, where it's filtered more finely and treated to kill any harmful microbes. Rainwater harvesting systems require some maintenance to ensure the components continue operating as they should. The amount of rainfall you can capture is based on your roof size and local precipitation rates. Your rainwater harvesting system's storage is sized based on your potential capture rate and your unique water needs so that there is an adequate water supply to carry you through any dry seasons.
If a water supply services the public - like a community centre well, or more than one household - a permit for a community water utility may be needed. In BC, this is administered by the province. For example, if a community centre has a well to provide water for its washrooms and kitchen, it needs a permit as a community water utility because the water supply will be used by the public. As another example, if a developer wants to create a community in a rural area that doesn't receive municipal water supply, s/he needs to ensure each property has water. Often a well is drilled to service each property and in this case the water supplies are private (one home serviced by each well). However, if a central water system - like a high-producing well or a small reservoir - is used to supply water to more than one home, then the water supply is considered to be a water utility.
First Nations in Canada are responsible for creating, treating/testing, and distributing their own water supplies, much like a municipality or other community development. However, the federal government provides funding to help with costs for infrastructure and training.
Need water? We can help! Earth and Sky Water Supply can find the best water source solution to suit your needs. Call us (250-483-3745), email us (firstname.lastname@example.org), or get in touch through our contact page! We'd love to work with you.