Some Watershed Protection Perspective

The recent resumption of logging in the Chapman Watershed has renewed the focus on our struggle to protect our most precious natural capital. Know that I share the deep frustration being expressed by the community. I hope to lay out some context and personal perspective below.

Some of the long struggle for our watershed is documented here, thanks to the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association.    The years from 1967-2008 are outlined, and briefly lay out over 40 related developments that happened between those years. It is a humbling account of advocacy, strategy and persistence.

When in 2008 SCRD Board of the day began to make some progress (despite court judgments against it) by convening itself as a Local Health Board, the province responded by revising the Health Act. The inches-thick file of my predecessor sitting on the floor beside me documents the struggle since 2007. And here we are again.

There is not just a temporal context to this struggle, but also a provincial and global context, as many other areas are frustrated in their efforts to control their own local watersheds. For example, the Cowichan Valley Regional District is struggling with provincially issued permits for dumping of contaminated industrial soil within Shawnigan Lake’s watershed. Community response there has involved protests, arrests, and tax assessment challenges. The local government approach has included the establishment of a Cowichan Watershed Board to facilitate multi-stakeholder collaboration, and a protracted legal struggle.

Local Governments lobby the Provincial Government in a number of ways, often jointly through Resolutions brought to the floor of the Union of BC Municipalities. A quick review of the UBCM Resolution Database shows 25 resolutions with regards to local control of watersheds from all over the province since 1987 including some by the SCRD.

Last year, the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities (our local regional sub-group of the UBCM) put together a “Private Managed Forest Lands and Water and Watershed Protection Working Group” of affected communities, stakeholders and regulatory agencies. In June, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Ministry of Health announced that they did not see that collaborative approach as a “workable option” and chose not to participate.

Adding to this current Chapman challenge is that the current lands in question are “Private Managed Forest Land”, rather than what is commonly called “Crown Land”. According to the Forest Practices Board the regulations community watersheds on Crown Land (the Forest Range Practices Act) “are inadequate”

On Private Managed Forest Land (the Private Managed Forest Act) the legislation is weaker still. Even when “industry standards for protecting water quality have not been met” as outlined here in this report to the Managed Forest Council, this is not considered a contravention of the regulations. The Act relies on objectives, rather than standards. In fact, in order for any legislative implications to be enacted, SCRD staff must prove a harmful effect on the water at the treatment plant as a result of the logging in question. There is little thought given to the precautionary principle in this framework.

The Province is rolling out a new “Water Sustainability Act” however implementation is currently focused on the fees and licensing of non-residential groundwater use, dam safety, and compliance with standards, rather than strengthening the standards themselves.

Clearly the cards are stacked a certain way here. The SCRD is given the responsibility for the provision of drinking water, without the tools for the source protection of the water. One of the things the Regional District cannot do is break the law, as it would expose the SCRD (and its citizen taxpayers) to legal liability.

So, how do we move forwards?

Firstly, the Chapman Watershed sits in unseeded shishálh territory. The area’s high cultural, spiritual, and biodiversity values are noted and it is considered a Conservation Area in the Nation’s Strategic Land Use Plan. The path forwards, as well as any long- term solutions, must involve respectful collaboration with our First Nations partners.

There is some very interesting work being done by a group at the University of Victoria called the Polis Project on Ecological Governance. Their “Blueprint for Watershed Governance” is what it’s title says it is, and should be required reading for anyone serious about the lasting systemic change that is called for in this situation. Its guiding principles, success conditions, resilience characteristics, and key reform milestones are a good summary of how I see us making progress on this long term issue. Initiatives that involve respectful engagement, inclusive participation, shared understanding, institutional flexibility, strong and distributed leadership are the ones that hold the most promise in my eyes.

Although I encourage you to have a really good look at this progressive, current, and bioregionally relevant resource, here is how the 45 page document wraps up: “At its core, reform in British Columbia will require a fundamental shift from the notion of managing watersheds for the benefit of people, to one of managing people, and their collective behaviour, within the broader ecological system”

The above will likely not satisfy those “demanding action now”.  “Fence the watershed!” “Spend the water meter money!” “Use the carrot!” “Use the stick!” are all perspectives I have heard in the last few days. Unfortunately, if there was a quick answer, or an easy answer, they probably would have found it in the 70’s, or the 80’s, or the 90’s, or the 00’s.

This summer’s drought conditions were a reminder of the demand and supply challenges our regional water system faces, and obviously intact watershed slopes are fundamental to that system. The Chapman watershed is not only our main drinking water source, but as Tetrahedron Park is our largest tract of protected area, it’s the wild core of the Sunshine Coast.

Having said all of the above, an elected official needs to be judged on progress, not on his website posts.

Finally, it should be noted that the above is my personal perspective on the issue, and not necessarily that of the Board or its other members.