Cowichan taking lead in bringing watershed governance to life

Earlier this fall, 16 people gathered in Duncan for a day-long tour of the Cowichan watershed led by the Cowichan Watershed Board (CWB)’s Rodger Hunter and Tim Kulchyski.

The tour reinforced that there are lessons to be learned from regions like the Cowichan that are embracing new ways of working together and considering environmental and community needs when it comes to who is making decisions about water and what those decisions are.

Participants came from existing B.C. watershed groups or regions that are starting to look at taking local control of their watersheds. In part this involves reorganizing decision-making, as water knows no political boundaries.

The field trip, which was co-hosted by the University of Victoria’s POLIS Water Sustainability Project, the CWB, and the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, offered participants an opportunity to

learn from the CWB’s experience and ask questions about its evolution. This sharing of knowledge was timely. The provincial government is currently developing critical regulations that will implement the new B.C. Water Sustainability Act. An important and innovative aspect of these regulations includes the potential to develop local water sustainability plans and allow for shared decision-making.

The tour began at the western edge of the watershed on Cowichan Lake and, as the day progressed, the group followed the flow of the river to the estuary at Cowichan Bay. Along the way, they stopped to discuss specific principles of watershed governance. Learning about the main social and ecological factors in the Cowichan, participants made connections to their home watersheds, and saw the complexity and value of watershed-based governance.

Standing on the banks of the river, watching spawning salmon jumping as they fought their way upstream, the group learned the history and current issues of this place – from ecological restoration sites and how the weir controls critical water levels, to the implications of a human-constructed (and ecologically damaging) bend in the river and provincial management in the estuary. Participants were offered a glimpse of the realities of watershed governance, and a deeper understanding of the people, natural history, and economic priorities of the Cowichan.

At each stop, a core principle of developing watershed governance was summarized:

Peer-to-peer learning is crucial

Experiential learning is key

Conflict can move things forward

Facts, science, and traditional knowledge matter

Small ecological restoration interventions can make a big difference

It’s better to work with nature han against it

Authority can help

Don’t give up

Following the tour, the group shared a meal and discussed how to move watershed-based management and governance forward across B.C. The conversation focused on the importance of local action, the necessity of aboriginal co-governance, and how the Water Sustainability Act might enable governance pilot projects.

Laura Brandes is the communications director at the POLIS Water Sustainability Project at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies. She is a contributing author of "A Blueprint for Watershed Governance in British Columbia" (January, 2014) and "The Cowichan Watershed Board: An Evolution of Collaborative Watershed Governance" (August, 2014).

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