Capacity in a Time of Hydrological Unknowns

British Columbia is not alone across the globe – here, as in many other regions, experts are calling out that residents (and other living creatures) find themselves in uncharted waters. To paraphrase Deborah Curran, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law and School of Environmental Studies at University of Victoria who spoke eloquently in a recent conference about the definition and role of Indigenous Water Law and the Emerging Priority of Water-Centric Planning:

It is being acknowledged by western science and by indigenous traditional knowledge that British Columbia now finds itself without any robust hydrological baselines.

It begs the question: Why? What does it mean to have no baseline data for hydrological function? How can we mitigate or address the impacts?

There are many answers to the Why? and among the most prevalent are these two: Climate change and the rate and type of anthropogenic change in the province.

So, then what comes next?

According to the plan that guides British Columbia provincial government – “Living Water Smart” there are 11 provincial ministries working collaboratively to “improve science and information so British Columbians can better prepare for the impacts of climate change”.

Capacity for effective sustainable water-centric planning and “living within ecological limits” depends on provincial support and guidance, but ultimately resides with local knowledge, local solutions to local problems, and local action. So, what are effective means for gathering and understanding local evidence, incorporating local values (ecological, social, economic and spiritual), and successfully setting targets and means to achieve them?

In the last decade, Vancouver Island (namely the multi-government, multi-jurisdictional and public-private partnership called “Convening for Action on Vancouver Island”) has been one of the leading regions of the province building capacity through collective strategizing, planning and taking action to achieve sustainability outcome together that are based on “water-centric” resource management, planning and sustainable development.

Some of the key phrases leading to transformative action within CAVI and the ripples leading out from the work of CAVI are: “design with nature”, “green value”, “natural assets” and “change the language” (among others).

Recently, I attended Watersheds 2018! an event in webinar format on June 5, 2018. The event created a successful convergence; it brought together more than a hundred delegates from across Canada, and had as a primary goal to learn and to discuss the role of Indigenous Law in successful watershed protection activities. It was also an event focussed on local British Columbia cases where transformative agreements, solutions and processes are under way to protect and sustainably manage land use and human development and health within the ecological limits of the watersheds that sustain us.  Highlights included: Gitanyow Land Use Plan, Nicola Watershed Pilot (a leading edge example of a water-centric memorandum of understanding between colonial and indigenous governments), Cowichan Watershed Board, and Nadleh Whut’en Water Management Regime.  Proceedings will be released to participants and the public, soon!

One of the outcomes of more than a decade of work to bring into practice the capacity for water-centric land use planning since the inception of Living Water Smart is a newly-released water use plan for the Cowichan Valley. The people of Cowichan Valley, guided by their regional government (Cowichan Valley Regional District), their multi-jurisdictional Watershed Board (which incorporates indigenous voice and knowledge), Cowichan Tribes (indigenous government) and Catalyst Paper (large local industrial partner and signficant water user) have created and published, a Water Use Plan suite of recommendations for their region. The water use planning process in B.C. is explained here.

Cowichan Water Use planning process included the work of a Public Advisory Group that followed structured decision-making theory and adjusted it for their purposes to build capacity for planning successfully in their region.

It is my mission and hope that Salt Spring Island and other communities will be inspired by the hard work of Cowichan Watershed Board and others mentioned here. Their work is an example of capacity-building in a time of hydrological unknowns. It takes time, money and energy, not to mention leadership and coordination to create the capacity in a community to think and express, to listen, evaluate and to pursue and achieve compromise. In this iterative way, and with flexibility and commitment to water as a central and high-ranking priority, communities are capable of truly “living water smart” in partnership with the beautiful and inherently changeable and fragile natural environment.

And, the intricate process of creating a Water Use Plan focussed on the lake levels and stream flows could also be balanced by integration of alternative water sources, demand management, land use planning and other features of the community that can go further to protecting watersheds with ecologically-sensitive development.

This article is an editorial style piece by Salt Spring Island Watershed Alliance (SSIWPA) Coordinator, Shannon Cowan, and does not reflect the opinions of any SSIWPA member agencies or their representatives.