BC's Land and Water scattered in reorganization

May Land and Water BC Inc. rest in peace.

There is an amazing lack of awareness of a now-eliminated government corporation that had started to remove the “public” from public land and water management. 

Land & Water BC‘s (LWBC) demise raises questions (or those who noticed) about the future of the venerable old bureaucracies of land and water management in BC, a future that will play a critical role in efforts to reform land use in the province.

New Ministries

For many British Columbians, the reorganization of the BC government this past June was not a major event. Most paid attention to Premier Campbell’s reshuffling of ministers from his smaller flock of MLAs. 

Some may have noted with satisfaction the restoration of the word “environment” to the ministry that has for the past four years moped under the fragmented name Water, Land & Air Protection; that satisfaction may have been even deeper in response to the restoration of a separate ministry for Aboriginal issues, now called, even more hearteningly, Aboriginal Relations & Reconciliation

Few, however, noticed the most significant change related to land use: the elimination of the government corporation Land & Water BC.

We should take a closer look at this change, though, for two reasons.

  1. LWBC, though small and obscure, had a significant influence over land use in British Columbia

  2. Changes to the corporation over the last four years appeared to be driving Crown land and water management in a dangerous direction. 

Evolving responsibilities for managing Public lands

As to the first reason to care: LWBC is just the most recent name for two agencies almost as old as the province.

Its predecessors, BC Lands and BC Water Management, shaped development since BC joined confederation.  These agencies were responsible for allowing businesses and individuals to use Crown land and water for everything from a dock in front of a cabin to a multi-billion dollar hydro-electric project. 

BC Lands is the agency that turns Crown land (still about 95% of the province) into private land.  So the agencies have a significant role, one that is sometimes controversial in local areas.  But their reputation is little known, province wide.  Their role has long been overshadowed by the mining and forestry ministries.

Which brings us to the second reason to care what’s going to happen to the people and programs of LWBC?  The agency can be seen as bellwether for the future of land management in BC. 

Its story over the past four years is disheartening. Its demise does not, unfortunately, mean a reversal of that story; indeed, the scattering of LWBC’s responsibilities to ministries that tend to be boosters for industry, without any reversal of LWBC’s streamlining of its review processes, could mean that the public interest and local concerns will cease to be factors in deciding how land and water are used.

Both agencies have moved around in various ministries over the decades, continuing to apply longstanding policies, operating under very old statutes, the Land Act and the Water Act.  For the most part, their mandates were similar: ensure land and water are used in a way that benefits most British Columbians, and that suits the highest and best use of the land or water. 

The agencies didn’t change much, under their various guises.  Even when they have shared policy branches, under the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, there were no significant shifts in their operations or policies.  In 1998, BC Lands was moved into a government corporation.

The new company, BC Assets and Land Corporation (BCAL), was supposed to make the agency more efficient, but little changed.  The new corporate status did generate more attention from environmental groups, as did its continued role in managing aquaculture, which was starting to become a hot topic.

But it wasn’t until 2002, when Lands and Water were merged under the new name of LWBC (a stodgier choice of name than the one some Lands employees suggested: “MUD”), that significant changes began to occur. 

In fact, the changes had begun within BCAL during the previous summer and fall, in response to the Liberal government’s insistence on faster turnaround times and less red tape: or, in other words, less review of proposed uses of Crown land; less delay on the path to privatizing BC’s greatest asset. 

In 2002, the water management branch was moved from the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, and “backlog reduction” and “140-day turnaround times” for water allocation decisions became the only things that mattered.

With water came the new name of LWBC, and the completion of the naive business hypothesis that was BCAL: government run like a business.

Liberals try to turn government into a business

The problem with this thesis is its very premise.  Government is not a private business, with an eye only for the profit margin.  Turning a government agency that happens to earn some revenue for the province into a corporation that sells land and water rights for a commission doesn’t create a good business, and it certainly doesn’t create good public policy.

Bad public policy was driven down the throats of the corporation’s staff.  Client service was the goal, but with a client redefined as the businesses that wanted to use public resources, rather than the public itself. 

Quick decisions were the measure of success, along with revenue, rather than the sustainable use of land and water in a way that benefited all British Columbians–and not just economically, but socially and culturally. 

The corporation cut back on referrals of land- and water-use proposals to other government agencies, including local governments, the Ministry of Health, and the branches that protect air and water quality and wildlife. 

These referrals were offloaded to the very people who wanted to use the land, who were given checklists that were rarely verified or enforced: “Is there bear habitat within 150 metres of the development site? Yes/No

Despite LWBC’s short life, the negative results of its drive to support development regardless of the cost began to pile up. It is likely that even more alarming stories will start to appear in the coming years, due to tenures granted hastily by deskbound Land Officers who used to go out and look at sites, and talk with experts about the potential effects of the proposals.

That prospect is alarming enough, but what is of greater concern is the fact that the new structure of government will make it more difficult for watchdogs to point out mistakes in land and water allocation, and hold one agency accountable. 

With these new, “streamlined” procedures in place, the various programs LWBC administered have been spread out among other ministries.  BC Lands has been reduced, it seems, to a smaller group with less authority over programs for which decision-making authority seems to have been handed to the ministries of Economic Development Tourism; Small Business; and Energy and Mines. 

Meanwhile, water management has returned to the
Ministry of Environment
. One hopes that this return to the ministry will restore some of the referral processes that LWBC cut, and that the agency won’t settle into even greater anonymity in its larger home and continue to quietly fixate on fast-tracking decisions.  With the same pro-business-and-nothing-else direction from the Liberals, though, this seems unlikely.

Future Bulletins will return to this topic over the coming weeks, after a more careful review of the new authorities over land and water, and their handling of decisions about such matters as small hydro power, “4-season” resorts, aquaculture, gravel quarries, and lakeshore development.

If you have a perspective, we encourage you to share it with us, using our comments feature, or by e-mailing us.

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