Encana Corp. and the British Columbia (BC) Oil and Gas Commission have been sued by a coalition of conservation groups for allegedly violating the provisions of short-term water permits to ensure enough supplies are available for unconventional natural gas drilling.

Ecojustice filed the lawsuit on Wednesday in BC Supreme Court on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Committee. The groups claim that BC’s regulators granted Encana the short-term permits, which were to be used for up to two years, but the permits in fact were used for much longer periods. The groups asked the court to declare the commission practice unlawful. They also want to quash several permits issued to Encana.

“The commission has become the go-to place for quick water access,” said Ecojustice lawyer Karen Campbell. “These short-term approvals are meant to be just that — short term, or two years. However, the commission has been granting these approvals repeatedly.” In some cases, “these approvals have been granted for five years, allowing continuous water use.”

The lawsuit claims that the commission is violating the BC Water Act “and thereby unlawfully allowing oil and gas companies to drain water from lakes, rivers and streams in the northeast for drilling…”

For instance, the groups said the commission has allowed Encana to withdraw up to 1 million liters/year of freshwater to drill for unconventional gas using hydraulic fracturing. In the past three years, Encana has drawn “880 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of water” from the Kiskatinaw River alone, which supplies drinking water to Dawson Creek residents.

Wilderness Committee’s Eoin Madden said there are 540 BC water resources now supplying producers and plans to increase the amount to ensure there’s enough for future unconventional drilling, raising concerns about contaminated water, drinking well contamination and greenhouse gas emissions.

“With climate change we expect less fresh water to be available,” Madden said.

The BC Oil and Gas Commission will review the petition, said a spokesman. “The commission takes its responsibility for water allocation very seriously and all applications go through a thorough review process. This process ensures water levels are maintained.”

BC water use, he said, is carefully monitored and gas wells are lined with cement to a depth of 600 meters to protect soil and water.

“Water has never been contaminated as a result of hydraulic fracturing in BC,” he said.