Comox Lake is the drinking water source for much of the Comox Valley. File photo

WATER WISE: Healthy watersheds should be a priority for all political parties

Do you know where your party of choice stands on the subject of clean water?

TANIS GOWER

Special to The Record

Whether or not you welcome the provincial vote this October, Election 2020 is giving us another opportunity to consider our priorities. The circumstances wrought by the global COVID-19 pandemic continue to prompt individuals and society to reflect about what is important. Common themes include the importance of reconnecting with nature, and the importance of food and water security. From my vantage point as a biologist, our supplies of food and water are inherently connected to the health of our natural environment.

From tourism to forestry, to fisheries, to agriculture, to recreation, B.C.’s watersheds are the foundation of our economy. Healthy natural watersheds in turn support the wild salmon central to food security and local economies, even as the salmon themselves support the web of life in our streams and forests.

Many of B.C.’s southern and interior watersheds are threatened by water scarcity. Low stream flows are harming salmon, while farmers may not have enough water for their crops. The demands of a growing population only increase this pressure on our water resources – B.C. has twice as many residents as it did in the 1970s, with more arriving each year.

Damage to forests and streams, along with poor water stewardship, has made many watersheds more susceptible to climate change stress. Excessive logging, agriculture, and development can take away the ability of forests to filter and store water. Over-extraction of water for agriculture and other needs is reducing flows in waterways. The drought, heat, and changes in snowpack brought by climate change are further decreasing summertime water availability. Yet healthy, resilient watersheds are what we need to face the future.

The BC Watershed Security Coalition – representing British Columbians from all walks of life and all parts of the Province – is asking the province for a long-term investment in B.C.’s watershed security. Security means having reliable, clean drinking water and water for agriculture, as well as the other ecosystem services healthy watersheds provide such as flood control, and fish and wildlife habitat.

Watershed security requires the Province to implement B.C.’s 2016 Water Sustainability Act to support the development of local watershed boards. As climate change accelerates and population numbers continue to grow, it is the locals who have the most at stake, and it is they who should be empowered to make the hard decisions, including which human water uses to prioritize when there is not enough water to go around.

Provincially supported, watershed-scale governance processes are now underway in two B.C. watersheds, one in the Merritt area, and one near Duncan, with local First Nations as co-leads. These initiatives show great promise. Provincial resources are now needed to support local watershed boards in every watershed with dangerously low stream flows, water shortages and competing water uses.

The Province has acknowledged that investing in watershed security is part of a COVID-19 recovery. Last month, they announced an investment of $27 million to employ people to improve the health of our watersheds. This is an important first step. Extensive research shows that investment in watershed restoration creates jobs and economic activity equivalent to other kinds of public infrastructure works. And, investing in healthy watersheds also happens to create major long-term benefits in the form of free ecosystem services, such as clean, reliable water supplies.

A province-wide watershed security fund that supports locals to monitor, restore and steward their watersheds is the next step. Between now and October 24, I encourage everyone to ask their candidates how they would make healthy watersheds, clean water and wild salmon a priority if they are elected. Now is the time to invest in the watersheds that support B.C. and invest in the future of life itself.

Tanis Gower is a Registered Professional Biologist from the Comox Valley. She has 25 years’ experience working as a consultant, in government, and in the non-profit sector, including as a Science and Policy Advisor for Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

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