Fraser Basin Council


5.3 Water Use Plans

When it comes to water planning and management, a wide variety of human uses and instream environmental needs must be considered and balanced. Water use planning is one approach to achieving this balance for a specified watercourse, watershed and/or water facility such as a reservoir. To date, Water Use Plans (WUP) have for the most part been associated with waterpower licences that are held by BC Hydro. The Comptroller of Water Rights or other appropriate authorities under the Water Act may require that a WUP be prepared for any existing licence. Expected priorities for the completion of plans are power developments, municipal water systems, and larger-scale industrial operations. WUPs may also be required for other water control facilities where there is an undesirable effect on fish, aquatic habitat, or other important values. While WUPs for existing licences may be required as needs are identified, plans may also be required as a condition of proponents seeking new licences for larger-scale operations (industrial, agricultural, municipal, or other facilities), or for works located on particularly valuable or sensitive streams.

Characteristics, Benefits and Applications

A Water Use Plan is a formal agreement that clarifies how water will be shared among water licensees while still providing adequate flows for fish and wildlife. A water licensee leads the planning process. The overarching goal of a Water Use Plan is to find “a better balance between competing uses of water, such as domestic water supply, fish and wildlife, recreating, heritage and electrical power needs, which are environmentally, socially and economically acceptable to British Columbians”.6 As such, Water Use Plans can help resolve conflicts among competing water users. To be effective, the plans need to consider all water uses and water licencees within a specified watercourse or watershed, as well as instream flow requirements for fish and aquatic ecosystems.

A watershed-based approach is particularly relevant because it includes all water uses, including instream environmental flows. The water use planning process has provided valuable information about environmental flow requirements in many of BC’s water systems. Water Use Plans may result in an agreement to amend a water license, resulting in a change in legal rights. They can also support water use regulation through voluntary changes to water use within existing water rights.7 The Guidelines state that if there are financial impacts on the licensee related to a reduction in water rights, compensation for losses will be an important consideration.

The Water Use Plan process could be broadly applied to other licence holders in BC because it has shown “great promise in dealing with conflicts among owners of water licences and non-licenced users of water, such as fish and aquatic resources”.8 Local and regional governments may also develop Water Use Plans. For example, the District of Summerland in the Okanagan region used the water use planning process for Trout Creek (Summerland Water Use Plan). “Metro is developing a Joint Water Use Plan for the Seymour and Capilano Watersheds. This Water Use Plan is about how the reservoirs and dams are operated, how water is released from the reservoirs and how it is allocated (as examples: drinking water, fisheries habitat, proposed power generation). . . . The planning process will explore whether and how hydropower generation from existing reservoirs can be accommodated within Metro Vancouver’s commitment to: continue to supply clean, safe drinking water, protect fish habitat, adapt to climate variability and climate change. Other community interests such as recreation, culture and heritage, and safety, will be reviewed within the context of the planning process. “ (Metro Vancouver Water Use Plan).


To date, all Water Use Plans have been prepared for surface water resources. This type of planning process is unlikely to be applicable to groundwater resources within current contexts. Although the Water Act vests ownership of both surface and groundwater to the province of British Columbia, the Act does not require a licence to withdraw and use subsurface water. However, groundwater regulation is within the scope of the Water Act Modernization initiative. Assessing the role of groundwater resources in maintaining instream flows and related surface water values is extremely complicated. Therefore, Water Use Plans may be an inappropriate or impractical approach to planning for groundwater resources at this time. However, some of the other characteristics and benefits of Water Use Plans could potentially be adapted to plan for and manage groundwater resources. Facilitating collaborative, multi-sector planning to achieve a balance across multiple water users and management goals is a key attribute of Water Use Plans that could be adapted to groundwater strategies.

As of 2010, 24 Water Use Plans had been completed for BC Hydro facilities.9 For more information on these plans see: Water Use Planning or BC Hydro Water Use Plans.

Key Elements and Steps

The following are some of the key elements and steps in preparing a Water Use Plan:

  • develop the plan in accordance with the provincial Water Use Plan Guidelines;
  • ensure the plan is consistent with the Water Act and the Fisheries Act;
  • develop the plan through an inclusive, consultative, multi-stakeholder planning process associated with a Water Act licence, and include local, provincial, federal and First Nations governments, local citizens, industrial users, water licence holders and other interest groups;
  • undertake hydrological studies, modeling, and assessments of instream flow requirements to develop a water budget that characterizes water supply and demand within the planning area;
  • define the proposed operating parameters to be applied in the day-to-day operations of hydroelectric or other water storage facilities;
  • Under the Water Act the Comptroller’s responsibility relates to amending waterpower licences and issuing Orders to help implement: “operational changes, monitoring studies and physical works outlined in the plan”;10 and,
  • implement the plan in accordance with conditions stated in the water licence renewal or amendment, or through an engineers’ orders under the Water Act.

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About Rethinking our Water Ways

This website is a guide to help BC communities learn more about planning for local watersheds and water resources, navigate current planning processes, consider relevant issues and challenges — including regional climate change impacts —  and build capacity to develop and implement plans.


The Rethinking our Water Ways guide and website are possible thanks to funding support from the BC Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Canada's Regional Adaptation Collaborative Program. The guide and website were launched and distributed through a series of regional workshops throughout BC, with funding contributions from the Fraser Salmon and Watersheds Program, Environment Canada and the Real Estate Foundation of BC. Learn more about our funders and advisors.

We want to hear from you

Share your suggestions for this website, and ideas for future water workshops, with:

Steve Litke
Senior Program Manager
T: 604 488-5358

About the Fraser Basin Council

Rethinking our Water Ways is an initiative of the Fraser Basin Council (FBC), a charitable non-profit society that advances sustainability in the Fraser River Basin, across BC, and beyond. Established in 1997, FBC brings people together from multiple sectors to learn about sustainability and find collaborative solutions to current issues. Learn more about FBC by visiting