Creating safe communities in a climate-changing British Columbia requires healthy watersheds

Opinion: The absolute basics include implementing groundwater use licenses, protecting drinking water sources, and establishing environmental and critical flow thresholds.

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It’s almost World Water Day, a day to draw attention to how important fresh water is in our lives.

This World Water Day, British Columbians face the reality of another year of unprecedented drought. The profound effects of last year’s unrelenting dry weather have continued into 2024. Snowpack is at record lows and half of the province is currently experiencing drought in what should be a wet time of year.

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It is a fact that the future we face is uncertain. The recent series of devastating and deadly floods, droughts and wildfires in British Columbia portend a chaotic future, a future in which these events will not only become more common, but also increasingly severe.

But this does not mean that communities cannot be strong, resilient and safe in the face of climate change.

Water and climate are intrinsically intertwined, and the way we manage and govern water will directly influence how we adapt to climate change.

This Friday, on World Water Day, British Columbians can celebrate a number of milestones and the good work being done in communities across British Columbia to maintain, restore and improve healthy watersheds. This work takes different forms, from monitoring fish populations to developing new decision-making processes in local watersheds, leading youth education, offering policy recommendations and holding government to account.

Because here the provincial government also has a crucial role.

Water and watershed security have become top priorities in recent years in British Columbia. British Columbia’s new Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Management was created in 2022 with a commitment to improve water and land use planning and develop the legal and institutional tools necessary to build landscape resilience and co-governance arrangements with indigenous governments.

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However, much additional work and action is urgently needed to address drought, reduce conflict, and improve social cohesion in British Columbia. Recent recommendations based on a decade of work from the University of Victoria’s POLIS water sustainability project call for a focus on three main areas.

Addressing ‘water gaps’: The provincial government needs better mechanisms to ensure basic water management is implemented to proactively manage and respond to extreme weather events. The absolute basics include implementing groundwater licensing, establishing environmental and critical flow thresholds, protecting drinking water sources, and reporting on basin status.

Support watershed co-governance pilot projects: Some new approaches to watershed governance are being tested across the province, demonstrating that planning and co-governance can effectively promote watershed security and reconciliation while reducing conflict. As an example, May 12, 2023 was a historic day when the Cowichan Tribes and the Province of British Columbia signed the Xwulqw’selu Watershed Planning Agreement (S-xats-thut tst – We Agree) in the Xwulqw’selu (Koksilah) watershed. on Vancouver Island. In doing so, they launched a historic multi-year watershed planning process, which included work to develop (and then implement) the first water sustainability plan in British Columbia, a potentially powerful tool under the Water Sustainability Act . The Xwulqw’selu process is a potential beacon for other regions and communities. In the coming years it will offer a real model.

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Growth of the British Columbia Watershed Security Fund: In March 2023, the provincial government and BC-First Nations Water Table announced the creation of a $100 million watershed security fund. This was another important step in creating lasting change. However, we are now in March 2024 and the fund needs more money to be effective, which must include federal partners to achieve the necessary goal of $75 million a year.

Looking to the future: It is clear that greater resilience and a better approach to watershed security will require reconciliation between Crown and Indigenous governments built around shared decisions and authority. It will also require better predictions, better basic freshwater management, better intergovernmental cooperation, better water monitoring to support effective adaptation, and better designed infrastructure to help navigate the turbulent waters ahead.

With global temperatures and sea levels rising, we live in a time of transformation for all of humanity. And we can take advantage of this moment. By making watershed security a priority, British Columbia can prosper for future generations. Healthy watersheds are the foundation of our collective health, spiritual well-being, quality of life and prosperity. On this World Water Day, let’s be brave, hold our governments accountable and keep working.

Laura Brandes is communications director for the POLIS project on ecological governance and the POLIS project on water sustainability at the Center for Global Studies at the University of Victoria. Robert Sandford is Senior Government Relations Liaison, Global Climate Emergency Response, United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

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