BC Groundwater Licensing: What You Need to Know About the March 1, 2022 DEADLINE

Posted by Hailey Troock on January 10, 2022

The March 1, 2022 deadline for existing Groundwater Licensing Applications is coming up fast. What does that mean for you and your farm?

Long story short: After March 1, 2022, everyone using groundwater for farming is legally required to have a water licence. If you have been using water prior to February 2016, you can submit an application for existing use by March 1. If you don’t, you must submit a NEW USE application, which will cost more money and potentially be harder to get. Take advantage of this opportunity to secure your water supply!

The topics of water access, use and regulations are forefront on most farmers’ minds so there’s no doubt that changes in how water is managed in B.C. is something important to demystify.

As the March 1, 2022, deadline approaches, it has been reported that only 25% of users have applied. There is currently estimated to be about 8,000 agricultural wells without a licence in BC, out of a total of 20,000 wells used for non-domestic use that require licensing. Needless to say, it’s a hot topic that will only become hotter as climate change brings hotter, dryer summers. 

If you’re still on the fence about the whys, whats and hows of water licence applications, look no further! This blog post will cover some frequently asked questions about water licensing in B.C. If you’d like to see a video that speaks to what’s included in this post, check out this blog post and video recording with the Ministry of Agriculture on the Kootenay and Boundary Farm Advisors website.

What kind of water licenses exist in BC?

In short, there are two types of water access to consider when thinking about licensing. Surface water includes streams, river, creeks and springs, while groundwater includes wells and dugouts. Rainwater catchment water is unregulated in the province.

Surface water is already regulated and has long required a licence for use. New groundwater licensing regulations were introduced in 2016.

Do I need to apply for a licence?

If you’re diverting and using surface water or groundwater for non-domestic purposes, you are required to apply for a licence.

If you’re just watering a small hobby garden of less than 1000 square meters (1/4 acre) than you don’t need an agricultural licence, this is still considered domestic use. Though a licence for domestic groundwater use is not required, registering your well is still strongly suggested because, according to the Province of B.C., it “creates a record of your water use and helps to ensure that your use is considered by the decision makers dealing with other licence applications.”

If you’re a new farmer/landholder and unsure whether or not your well is registered, you can contact FrontCounter BC to check out the provincial database and complete a Well Registration Form if a record does not yet exist. You can email it to Groundwater@gov.bc.ca or mail it to the address provided.

Am I considered an Existing or New User?

If you’ve been using groundwater for agriculture since before February 29, 2016, you’re considered to be an Existing User and apply for an Existing Use licence. If you’ve started accessing and using groundwater for agriculture after this date, you’re considered to be a New User in the application process and must apply for a New Use licence.

The deadline to apply for Existing Use is March 1, 2022. An important thing to note for Existing Users who have not yet applied is that after March 1 2022, everyone must apply for New Use EVEN if you have been using the groundwater since before 2016. With a New Use application, the user cannot use the water until the license is approved (which takes from months to years currently) and there is more scrutiny and more costs. When applying for an Existing Use licence, you can use water as you have been with no interruption. 

I’m a new farmer or landholder leasing my land, what should I keep in mind when applying?

  • Any applications for Existing Use groundwater licenses should not be denied. 
  • If a well has previously been used for farming, but a new farmer is taking over operations, they can apply for an Existing Use licence. 
  • In the case a farmer is leasing land that the landholder has never farmed, the landholder should still be the one applying for a licence, whether Existing or New depending on historical well use data.
  • If the land was historically farmed but has not been since 2016, it may still be considered for an Existing Use Application.
  • For leasing farmers, it is generally going to be preferable to find a farmer who has an existing water license.
  • Apply for what area you are irrigating right now – you cannot speculate on water. If you expand, apply for another license for more area that you want to irrigate. It is recommended to make a new application, not amend an existing application because it can open up a can of worms, and the province may add new clauses.
  • If an existing well is just being used for domestic use, you’re applying for a New Use for irrigation. If irrigation use has been intermittent or supplemental, apply as an Existing Use.
  • For livestock, apply for your maximum estimated use in the year if populations fluctuate. If you have plans in the short-term to expand your use, make a note in the application. 
  • The minimum annual fee for the groundwater license is $50, which covers a lot of volume – examples include approximately 3,000 head of cattle, or irrigation for approximately 40 acres of vegetable crops in the Lower Mainland. Most small scale farmers and ranchers won’t exceed the minimum fee.

Why the long wait time for approval?

The Existing Use Applications are not being processed quickly – this is because they are focussing on intake. The applications need to be in by a certain date, not approved by a certain date, and the application processing period for Existing Use does not impact a farmer’s ability to use their groundwater.

Are there extra costs to consider when licensing new groundwater sources for agriculture?

If a new well is required, there can be a huge cost for a hydrological assessment before the well is drilled, in some cases upwards of $35,000. If a well has only been used for domestic purposes, landholders will need to do a test to prove that there is enough flow rate to not be impacting the aquifer. A pump test can range in cost from $5,000 to $30,000, which is less than an assessment for a new well. Smaller acreage applications may have a better chance of being approved, as well as applications in areas that haven’t historically had water restrictions.

Why does groundwater need to be licensed?

  • The Water Sustainability Act was introduced in 2016 to regulate both surface AND groundwater. The new act was introduced because groundwater use impacts surface water, which can have big ecological impacts, such as on salmon runs. Groundwater and surface water are connected.
  • The new licensing requirements enables the Province to better manage water availability in times of drought or emergency, because they can fully understand how water is being used in a certain area.

It’s important to note that not registering does not necessarily mean you will be able to keep using your groundwater by “staying under the radar”. In times of water restrictions, the province will be looking for unlicensed use in order to reduce the ecological impacts, and there are penalties for using water without a license.

    What do I need to apply?

    Elements of an authorization:

    • Date of precedence
    • Water use purpose
    • Quantity for each purpose
    • Attached to the land
    • Terms and conditions eg dates of irrigation allowed
    • Annual fee (per purpose). Min annual fee of $50 per purpose, plus volume fee for irrigation. 85 cents per 1 million litres of water. 

    Before you begin:

    • Get your BC electronic identification
      • A BCeID acct provides secure access to online government services
      • www.bceid.ca
      • Register for a BASIC BCeID
      • Create a username and password – write it down!

    Required information to complete your application – gather this info beforehand:

    • Name and contact info. Use the same name that is on the Land Title – it must match! If more than one individual is on title, you will need to add them as co-applicant. Other people must agree that you’re allowed to apply for an authorization. You put other co-owners names and emails, and the province will send them a request to agree. If you hire an agent, they must provide a letter of agency.
    • Property information – if you have a tax form, you have the legal name and property identifier and PID number.
    • Area(s) to be irrigated and type of crop(s)
    • Water use purpose(s) and volume estimation – there is a tool to help (linked below)
    • History and proof of water use
    • Well information (a drill log, which may be available online if the driller is registered with the province)
    • Details of works (eg pumps, pipeline, pump house)
    • Site drawing/map (include works)

    Water use purposes and volumes:

    • To help understand the volume of water you need, you can use the online BC Agriculture Water Calculator.
    • For Proof of First Use, zoom into your map into your property. If you see your well, with coordinates, tag number, you can add that info into your application. 
    • Select your property and crop type. The soil layer should be auto populated but you can change it. Add irrigation type and dates and it will calculate your volume of irrigation. To find out just your field area, you can make a new layer and make a diagram of your fields and it will calculate the hectares. 
    • Add the area of your fields to the main page and generate a report. 
    • If your well is not on the map already, add it to the map yourself. Be as accurate as you can with your location. You can add a pipeline too. 

    Application Site Map:

    • Property boundary where water is being used
    • Works labelled (well location, main pipes, storage tanks, etc.)
    • Actual places of water use (barns, dwellings, outline of fields to be irrigated)
    • Can be done by hand or online with BC Agriculture Water Calculator

    History and Proof of First Use:

    • Evidence of the date that groundwater was first used:
      • Well log or construction report
      • Government issued certification or permit
      • Historical records
      • Receipt for pump installation
      • A neighbour can vouch for you in a letter

    Well information

    • Well tag number: on the well or in the database
    • Location: you can use Google Maps to get the latitude and longitude
    • Artesian: if it’s overflowing on top of the well head (they just want to know – be honest)

    If you’ve used over the minimum fee, you will have to pay for your last 6 years of use if you’ve been using since before 2016.

    Details of works:

    • Works such as physical equipment used to move water from its source to where it’s used
    • Can include screened intake, pump, pipeline, irrigation system, dugout, storage structure, etc.

    Where do I apply?

    Once you have your BCeID and the required information, you can apply online through this link. If you’re not able to complete the application in one sitting, the portal allows you to save your progress and complete it in stages. If you require more support to complete your application, you can reach out to FrontCounterBC.

    More information: