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3rd February 2022
Oliver M. Brandes and Rosie Simms: Securing and protecting our water, its natural habitat both a practical and policy priority

Opinion: More policies and strategies are not what the public is clamouring for. British Columbia cannot wait until 2023 for a Watershed Security Strategy without specific and dedicated action in the meantime

Author of the article:Oliver M. Brandes and Rosie Simms
Publishing date: Jan 27, 2022

As 2022 begins, British Columbia is still reeling from a roller-coaster year of relentless fires, droughts and floods. We learned, without a doubt, that the climate crisis is a water crisis.

The same communities under evacuation alerts from record wildfires during August’s drought experienced devastating floods only three months later: Thousands of people displaced from their homes. Salmon and ecosystems decimated. Crops and livestock wiped out. A groaning feeling of widespread dread. The toll from last year’s extreme water events alone is enormous — on families, health, ecosystems, food security, infrastructure and economies — and has exposed deep fractures and inequalities.

For the people of B.C., climate chaos is no longer an abstract future concept. It is not something that happens to other people, elsewhere. Instead, it is a stark reality, here and now. And it’s through water — too much and not enough — that we’re feeling the aches, pains and insecurity of a climate-changed world.

While we are good at getting people back on their feet — ensuring basements are dry or supply chains can get rolling again — now is the time for our leaders to do much more than just respond and chase crises.

With this week’s release of the provincial Watershed Security Strategy and Fund Discussion Paper , we have a glimpse of how government is thinking about ensuring the security of our watersheds and improving our collective capacity to manage water sustainably.

We see many positive signs as government moves from vague ideas, to planning, to actual action.

A big opportunity is using this strategy development process to reboot and rebuild trust with Indigenous partners by advancing a collaborative and deep partnership approach. This will generate more creative solutions and ensure better uptake and changes that can last. Co-governance is the only path forward for working with Indigenous nations and the quicker the provincial government gets a handle on that, the better for everyone all across B.C.

Other highlights in government’s proposed outcomes include emphasis on implementing the full suite of available legal tools to protect fresh water, better science and knowledge, protecting drinking water sources, explicitly linking land use and water planning, and an interest in working across departments in an integrated way.

But despite the promising direction in the discussion paper, more policies and strategies are not what the public is clamouring for. Communities hunger for real action and real investment in our watersheds. Simply put, British Columbia cannot wait until 2023 for a watershed security strategy without specific and dedicated action in the meantime.

The provincial government is committed to “building back better” from the events that have rocked B.C., including the COVID-19 pandemic, devastating wildfires and major floods. And more action can be taken now.

To truly build back better, water security must be a priority and nature — not concrete — needs to be central to our design approach. Natural defences like forests, wetlands and watersheds can provide the same services as built infrastructure at a fraction of the cost. For example, wetlands are wonderful for keeping good water clean and available. Forests in place create effective sponges to help store and moderate the flow of water. Riparian habitat is not just good for wild salmon, but helps to buffer floods and survive droughts. Groundwater that is licensed and protected is absolutely critical when the dry spell comes. The list goes on.

Creating a watershed security fund flow resources to communities so they can plan, collaborate and shore up their natural defences is a well-known and urgent priority. This will immediately accelerate progress on the ground and even reduce future costs. Similarly, accelerating and supporting existing provincial and Indigenous government water- and land-use partnerships — while using existing promising legislation and tools, and protecting drinking water sources — does not need to wait until the broader watershed security strategy gets rolled out. Many of the solutions already exist, are broadly supported and simply need to be done.

We recognize that moving from ideas to action is a huge challenge for governments everywhere. But we firmly believe that, like most of us, government can walk and chew gum. This means strategy development and public engagement (the chewing part) can happen while things get done to make all our lives better (the walking part).

For many, these recent wild water lurches seemed to come out of nowhere. And that is the issue: It really isn’t unexpected. It may just be happening faster than many of us imagined. But a bleak future of worsening impacts is not inevitable. We can still choose a different path forward.

The B.C. government has an opportunity to lead the world in taking watershed security seriously and building a plan to help us get to a prosperous tomorrow, while starting the work today. This is the best hedge against an increasingly uncertain future.

Oliver M. Brandes is the associate director at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies and co-director of the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance. Rosie Simms is a research lead and project manager at the University of Victoria’s POLIS Water Sustainability Project. They co-authored Making a Collective Splash: Context and Guidance for Watershed Security Strategy Submissions to Government, which offers guidance for water champions, community leaders, other levels of government, and organizations to inform their submissions and responses to the provincial government’s Watershed Security Strategy and Fund Discussion Paper.