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25th July 2021
B.C. gets a hefty economic bang for the bucks it spends on protecting watersheds

Impact estimates protecting water, enhancing watersheds is an endeavour worth $5 billion a year to the province supporting 48,000 jobs.

Author of the article: Derrick Penner
Publishing date: Jul 21, 2021

For the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, stream-bank stabilization work in the Chilako River watershed west of Prince George is about improving the future prospects for salmon. But it is also a project with economic side benefits.

“First Nations communities are extremely tied to and identify with salmon, (so) there’s that benefit,” said Gord Sterritt, executive director of the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance.

“In addition to the economic benefit where people are working, money goes back into the community, they go out and buy their goods and wares, and they’re able to feed their community,” said Sterritt, of the Chilako project, which drew $750,000 from B.C.’s pandemic-prompted $27-million healthy watersheds fund.

Watershed-conservation groups view this effort, which offered training in habitat restoration and jobs to 11 Lhedli T’enneh members and non-Indigenous Prince George residents, as a small ripple in what they estimate to be a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

Protecting water quality, cleaning up streams and restoring watersheds is an economic endeavour that adds up to 48,000 jobs and $5 billion a year in economic activity, according to an economic impact study commissioned by conservation interests.

On that basis, provincial objectives to establish a watershed security strategy, with specific funding tied to it, has an economic investment angle. And the economic-impact assessment they commissioned justifies a $1-billion investment stretched out as $100 million annually over 10 years.

That would create an additional 13,000 jobs, helping to deliver a post-pandemic boost to rural and remote communities in particular that haven’t had the same COVID-19 rebound as urban centres, according to the report.

“We had a sense that there’s a bit of an untold story around how many jobs are generated in this space of protecting and maintaining and securing our watersheds,” said Tim Morris, project director for the B.C. Freshwater Legacy Initiative, one of the groups that commissioned the study.

For lead consultant Ben Clark, compiling the research was, in part, a matter of quantifying an economic impact and “speak the language of these other large sectors.”

Working for the Delphi Group, the sustainability consulting firm that runs the Globe Series of conferences on sustainable business, Clark put together an economic model that measures the business side of managing water and protecting watersheds across a wide range of activities.

It includes small, conservation-oriented stream restoration projects and government water-quality monitoring and enforcement. It takes in municipal water treatment and industrial wastewater management.

The study also throws in reforestation in upland areas, considering “things like tree-planting and reforestation activities directly contribute to healthy watersheds,” Clark said.

Morris’ non-profit, which co-ordinates funding for watershed projects from the B.C. Real Estate Foundation, Sitka Foundation and MakeWay Foundation, is one of three organizations that backed the Delphi Working for Watersheds report, which was being made public this week.

The POLIS Water Sustainability Project and B.C. Water Funders Collaborative also contributed to the effort, which will feed into provincial consultations aimed at bolstering watershed protections.

Establishing a watershed protection strategy, with an associated and dedicated watershed protection fund, were objectives that Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman was charged with achieving in his mandate letter from Premier John Horgan following the 2020 provincial election.

Heyman was not made available for an interview, but in an unattributed statement, his staff said the Working for Watershed report helps fill in gaps about the economic value of the watershed sector that it lacks now.

The province is still in the early stages of developing its strategy, and how much its associated fund will be, but in the statement, a spokesperson said collaboration and reconciliation with Indigenous communities will be central to the work.

Clark, during a webinar that unveiled the findings to conservation groups, said they were careful to not put a price on water itself, which is an essential public resource, but wanted to highlight the value of the work that people are doing to protect it.

And Morris said the groups view the study’s results as “part of making the case for supporting work around watershed security,” as a professional sector “and these weren’t projects that were just being done by volunteers.”

They are making the case that stable, sustained and significant funding to the watershed security fund would have a bigger impact on the sector creating expertise in water management that B.C. could even export at a time it is more important due to climate change.