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March 28, 2011

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Public must act to ensure water stays public

VANCOUVER—The best strategy to ensure that water stays in public hands and isn’t turned over to for-profit business interests is for government to protect natural resources as a public trust. That’s one of the main messages Vancouver and Victoria audiences heard from well-known environmental lawyer and activist Jim Olson on March 23rd and 24th.

As a part of World Water Day activities, CUPE BC co-sponsored the events with the Council of Canadians, the Wilderness Committee and the Sierra Club BC. Olson, one of the world’s foremost experts in the public trust, advised BC residents to enshrine the notion that the crown holds water in trust for all residents into the BC Government’s proposed Water Sustainability Act. Doing so would not only ensure public control of resources but would shield provinces and communities that act to control water rights from NAFTA and possibly CETA trade challenges.

Olson’s presentation was timely. The Government of BC is currently involved in the "Modernization of the BC Water Act," a process that has suggested the introduction of a market-based allocation system for water licenses (or a water market.) The implications of such a framework are very serious. (To see CUPE’s Water Watch campaign’s submission to the consultation process, click here.) Water markets would essentially remove regulatory control over the allocation of water and allow for allocation priorities to be determined by a market and purchasing power. Corporate interests would be prioritized over the needs of eco-systems and the public. The current act also has a “first in time, first in right” policy that prevents the establishment of priorities for use of water in the province.

“Instituting water markets in B.C. would take this province down the dangerous road to privatizing our water systems and could lead to the unsustainable use of our natural resources. The public trust principle holds a lot of promise as a way of protecting and preserving our limited water resources,” said Robin Jane Roff, CUPE BC’s Water Watch coordinator.

Olson, an environmental attorney based in Michigan, has been practicing and writing about environmental, water and public trust law for over 35 years. He and his firm have been involved in a variety of state and federal court decisions, including over 30 appellate court decisions that have protected land, water, public access, parklands, wetlands, wilderness, rivers and lakes, the Great Lakes, and public trust and that have prevented or remedied sprawl and toxic pollution. He was featured in two recent documentary films, “FLOW: For Love of Water” and “Blue Gold.”


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