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1st May 2019
Natasha Overduin, Rosie Simms and Oliver Brandes: If climate change is the shark, water is its teeth and they're sinking in

Keeping water on our landscapes and in our rivers, lakes and aquifers is our best approach against an uncertain and chaotic future.

GORDON CLARK Updated: April 13, 2019 6:00 PM
The Province Opinion Op-Ed

The recent news that Canada is, on average, warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world is a major concern for British Columbians. Here on the West Coast, many people already have firsthand experience with the impacts and new realities that spiral from widespread warming and more extreme extremes. And, last weekís federal report, Canadaís Changing Climate, reminds us that the raging forest fires, parched landscapes and devastating floods that British Columbians have lived through in recent years are here to stay, and will be a lasting part of our shared future.

Across B.C., climate impacts are being felt, first and foremost, in the water: As the climate changes, the hydrologic cycle undergoes mass fluctuation.

Take the Cowichan watershed on Vancouver Island, which is currently experiencing an unprecedented spring drought. Droughts have become regular occurrences across the Island during the heat of summer, but to have no rain during the wettest time of year? That is completely new, and the past offers us no guide on how to respond. Or, look at Grand Forks, whose residents are still struggling to pay bills associated with property damage (an estimated $38 million) from last yearís historic flood in the Kettle River. And even B.C.ís historically water-rich Skeena region, with its globally iconic wild-salmon runs, suffered a drought last fall. The region experienced record-breaking drops in river levels that may be persisting into the new year, creating an entirely new category of problem: the winter drought.

Despite the growing tower of climate evidence, the overall approach to water and land management remains steeped in the status quo, oblivious to changing landscapes and changing hydrology. We still clear-cut forests (which exacerbates the impacts of flooding, since forests with trees hold more water than bare hillsides). We still build mines in headwaters; still charge pennies for industrial water extraction; and still continue to pump groundwater with abandon, without knowing how much there is or how much we are taking.

Water is the linchpin for getting ahead of the curve on climate change, and for building the resilience needed, and any hope for, a sustainable future.

B.C. doesnít need to wait for global agreements, or for Europe, America, or China to be a leader on climate change. We can start now by protecting drinking-water sources and keeping water on the landscape in healthy watersheds. To prepare for the turbulent times ahead, we can immediately initiate planning to restore natural systems and change how water and land are used. We can begin to actually measure water use to enable effective management. We can invest in keeping riparian areas and wetlands intact so they can soak up carbon and buffer flood impacts. We can stop building our homes in flood plains. And, most importantly, we can conserve now for the inevitable drought that will come tomorrow.

The list of to-dos is long, but each and every item is achievable. Taking these proactive steps can even help generate new industrial best-management practices and ensure a viable economic future, especially in rural communities.

Water is the link to protecting wild salmon, and the ecosystems, communities and economies they sustain. Without adequate flows of clean, cold water, young salmon canít travel to the ocean and adults canít return to their home rivers to spawn.

Water is the path to better, more sustainable forestry and industrial development. We need to ensure landscapes are managed with water objectives and cumulative effects front-of-mind, and that industries are held to the highest standards of water use.

Water is the foundation of sustainable agriculture and local food security. With a single head of organic California broccoli costing up to $13 this winter, we were reminded of the need to wisely manage the basic elements that keep food on the table.

Water is also a critical catalyst for transforming relationships with Indigenous communities. First Nations have inherent rights and responsibilities to water, and are leading its stewardship and protection. Conversations about water and reconciliation were largely avoided across Canada for over 150 years. Building better pathways forward will take time, resources and lasting commitment. Water governance is a critical place to start this long-awaited dialogue and transformation.

Water is also a starting place for hope as we face an increasingly frightening future: Our shared reliance on water gives us somewhere to begin. We all need water, and itís a place where communities and individuals can take immediate action ó whether pulling invasive plants, monitoring water quality or participating in watershed planning.

Keeping water on our landscapes and in our rivers, lakes and aquifers is our best approach against an uncertain and chaotic future. If we get water right, we stand a chance for a sustainable future, and give future generations a foundation for dealing with the changes ahead.

Natasha Overduin is an associate at the University of Victoriaís POLIS Water Sustainability Project and the B.C. water-governance program manager at the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources. Rosie Simms is a researcher and project manager at the POLIS water project. Oliver Brandes is the associate director at the University of Victoriaís Centre for Global Studies and co-director of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance.