Local Control Task Force - Round 2

If you live in the Cowichan Region, you will know that water is always at the centre of our existence—geographically, ecologically, and culturally. As we enter yet another seasonal drought episode, consciousness about water is heightened. We humans are programmed to take a keener interest in all things scarce, but when that scarcity entails one of life’s necessities, our limbic systems concentrate the mind, sharpening our focus.

The possibility that the Cowichan Region might run short of water for our fish, our business, or even our own family sets off visceral alarms. Why is this happening? What can be done? Who is responsible? How can I assert control?

In this spirit, the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s (CVRD) Watershed Task Force met this week for a second round in a 2-day workshop at the Quw’utsun Centre on the banks of a flow-impoverished Cowichan River. (Here, now measured at 4 cubic metres per second.)

Guest experts, local politicians, resource managers, and citizens concerned about sustainability and resilience convened to discuss four refined problem statements arising out of the Task Force’s deliberations in May. These statements shaped the proceedings:

1    Local governments, First Nations, and NGOs typically do not have adequate long-term funding (and often compete for it) to carry out water management and stewardship activities.
2    Decision-makers lack a coordinated set of strategies, mandates, information, and tools to make informed decisions around water, watershed health and land use.
3    Activities on private land that impact water quality, water quantity, and ecosystem health are often not enforced or enforceable under current law.
4    Our collective impact on watershed health is not measured, which limits our ability to adapt and improve as a region over time.

In seeking to establish greater local control, environmental lawyer Deborah Curran offered particularly pragmatic advice. She urged decision makers to fully deploy the arsenal of tools already at their disposal, by adopting a water-centric decision-making framework, expanding watershed monitoring, and exploiting existing zoning powers and regulatory bylaws wherever possible. She went on to point out opportunities within specific sections of the new Water Sustainability Act that will open the door to more local autonomy.

Oliver Brandes, of the POLIS Project On Ecological Governance exhorted the Task Force to fearlessly forge ahead and shape a governance model that would suit the Cowichan Region and influence regulatory design under the new legislation. He advised that law evolves and can be interpreted out of life experience. Cowichan should seize this opportunity to lead the province.

Predictably, industrial forest landowners expressed concern that they might have to abide by the same rules as small property owners in any new watershed management regime. They were quick to defend their existing practices under the Private Managed Forest Land Act and to trumpet their Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification scheme as reason enough not to change from business as usual. The inconvenient truth is that we are all going to have to learn to adapt and collaborate when it comes to ecosystem health and our watersheds.

By the end of the workshop there was a vague sense of having moved toward more concrete governance options but some delegates were openly frustrated that the specifics were still elusive. Much more work remains to be done.  

It was somewhat disappointing not to have greater First Nations representation and leadership. Their knowledge and wisdom about watersheds has never been more urgently needed than now as the Cowichan River slows to a trickle through their territory.