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Top minds get up-close look at Valley watershed

National and international experts got to see for themselves how watersheds are being affected by a changing world when they visited the Valley for a three-day conference this week.

An event, entitled Watersheds 2014, held at the Quw'utsun Conference Centre and presented by the POLIS project on ecological governance, wrapped up Wednesday after offering 200 visitors the chance to view the iconic Cowichan watershed as they pooled ideas.

Rob Hutchins, chair of the Cowichan Valley Regional District as well as the Cowichan Valley Watershed Board, said that event organizers have been surprised by the dry winter this year.

"When we planned this we didn't anticipate such a weather event. Yes, it's very concerning. Not only is there no snow pack, we've also had little precipitation. Nothing is being stored."

So the visitors have seen the watershed before what could be a desperate summer of water shortages.

"It will be an opportunity," Hutchins said. "Because it's not a regular year, this could be the motivation that we need to take a greater role managing this precious resource.

"One of the reasons why this conference is happening is because of climate change. So while this weather pattern is unusual, we haven't seen much evidence of it in our past, it appears to be something for our future," Hutchins said.

Some of the participants also signed up for a four-hour tour of the Cowichan watershed on Sunday before the full three-day conference started on Monday.

Hutchins was delighted at the opportunity to showcase the Cowichan watershed, saying that organizers found the venue was an easy sell.

"One of the principals behind POLIS, Oliver Brandes, is a special advisor to the Cowichan Watershed Board, so when we heard that POLIS was going to be putting on this national/international conference on watershed governance we actually invited them to take a look at hosting it in the Cowichan rather than in Victoria.

"They came up and took a look around.

Cowichan Tribes representatives took them through the Quw'utsun Centre right on the Cowichan River. You can't really get a better spot to host this conference. Local watershed issues and local watershed governance: it's all right there.

"That facility captured their imagination and the rest is history. They had an immediate take up on the registration. I don't think they even had to advertise it. They emailed interested parties across Canada and were filled up within two weeks."

Hutchins said it was exciting to know that the best, most creative minds in this field were coming to the conference.

There's plenty still to do.

"The watershed board is a child both of the CVRD and Cowichan Tribes. The [low flow] crisis of 2003 galvanized action and a whole variety of agencies helped invest in the Cowichan Watershed Basin Study," he said.

But two more crises were needed before politicians would actually move, he said.

"We had another dry year in 2006 and we had the flooding in 2009 so by the beginning of 2010 there was that political will that said, 'Okay, we need to invest in implementation both in financial and human resources to implement the watershed basin plan'."

The plan is there and now, with the impetus of a big conference, it may be time to move forward on some of the plan's goals, Hutchins said.