What’s B.C.’s most precious natural resource? It’s not oil or gas, timber or gold, farmland or hydroelectricity. It’s water, which everything else relies on.

The province’s Peace region is the epicentre of a growing crisis that shows how fragile our society becomes without water – and how poorly our leaders have managed water until now.

B.C.’s entire northeast is experiencing a level 5 drought (the worst on the scale) and has been since Fall 2022. Regulators are now warning the region’s powerful oil and gas companies of “possibly limited water supply” by summer.

A showdown is looming between the industry most responsible for climate breakdown, and the rest of us who rely on increasingly scarce water to grow food, fight fires and generate electricity.

Fracking destroys fresh water

Plenty of industries hold licences to extract water in B.C., but only oil and gas companies are allowed to permanently pollute it. And the price they pay is miniscule: $2.25 per million litres.

There are 9,000 or so gas wells in the Northeast, nearly all of them hydraulically fractured. Each “frack job” uses up to 30 million litres of water, which is mixed with toxic chemicals and blasted deep underground to crack apart rock formations containing methane gas.

After fracking, the companies pump that contaminated water deep underground, into abandoned oil and gas wells. Meanwhile our government asks us to take shorter showers.

For context, a human being needs three to four litres of water per day just to stay alive. Even if you include showers and toilets, sprinklers and dishwashers, 30 million litres of water is enough to meet one day of water needs for 91,000 people in Canada.

Put another way, 30 million litres is 12 Olympic swimming pools of water permanently removed from creeks, aquifers or wetlands. If LNG export terminals are built they will need thousands of new fracking wells to fill the pipelines – and that means destroying even more of our water.

Chip in to stop fracking in B.C.

LNG companies want more hydro power

There’s another way oil and gas interests are about to collide with the rest of the province, and that’s over the issue of electricity use.

Like water, oil and gas companies get clean power from the province at discounted rates. But their appetite is enormous. The proposed Ksi Lisims LNG terminal alone would gobble up the entire projected power output of the Site C dam.

Speaking of Site C, the water reservoir behind the $16 billion power station was supposed to be filled last fall. BC Hydro postponed that by a year. Now, with streamflow on the Peace River well below average, it’s not clear how much future power the dam will actually produce.

All over B.C. glaciers are melting and snowpack is low, reducing the amount of water available for power generation. Last year B.C. imported about a fifth of its electricity from Alberta and western U.S. states, because our dams couldn’t keep up.

BC Hydro is planning a call for new power this year that will include utility-scale wind and solar. The Crown corporation is promising to prioritise projects in Indigenous communities. Are we really going to give that new renewable energy capacity to fracking and LNG companies?

Fires, fish, fodder for livestock

The Northeast is facing another threat: more than 100 wildfires that burned underground all winter and are now smouldering near pipelines and highways.

Dan Davies, MLA for Peace River North, has written to the Forests minister pleading for the resources to stop these zombie fires before they spring to life again.

With hot, dry conditions forecasted across the province, it looks like water bombers and helicopters will be busy all over B.C. very soon. They need water to fight fires.

So do fish, which have struggled with catastrophically low streamflow in recent years. Images of dead salmon clogging a creekbed in Heiltsuk territory went viral in October 2022 after stream walkers stumbled across the grisly scene.

This winter, snowpack levels on Vancouver Island are just 30 per cent of normal. South Coast snowpack sits at 41 per cent. Will salmon even be able to get into their spawning streams?

Meanwhile farmers are searching for hay again after last year’s drought left many without enough feed for their livestock. Pasture needs either rain or irrigation to grow.

Last August the provincial government chipped in $150,000 to help drought-stricken farmers ship surplus hay from other regions. It’s a stopgap solution, as water woes spread across the West.

Time to get serious about water

This province is sleepwalking into a water crisis that will force hard choices about who gets priority access to water, and the energy we generate using water.

The Northeast is the canary in the coalmine, along with neighbouring Alberta which is struggling with the same brutal and unrelenting drought.

For years both provinces have encouraged industrial users to waste fresh water with rock-bottom rates. That needs to stop. Why should fracking companies have the right to permanently pollute water and remove it from the environment?

We’ve also promised hydroelectricity to oil and gas companies that is needed to power heat pumps, electric vehicles and other technology to reduce fossil fuel use. It’s one or the other. We should not be using clean water or clean power to extract more dirty energy.

Like other aspects of climate change, B.C. has been slow to grasp the scale and gravity of the water crisis. It’s not enough to offer rebates in a few municipalities for low-flow toilets. We need an emergency plan.

That includes shutting down oil and gas production the minute other water-use needs can’t be met, including environmental needs. We should not be subsidizing the industry most responsible for the crisis we’re in.

History is full of examples of corporations assuming a resource is unlimited and exploiting it to the point of collapse: Atlantic cod, beaver, old-growth trees. Let’s not be so careless with water.