What is watershed governance? And why is it important?

Watershed governance offers an alternative to current systems of governance and planning by asking: How can those who live and work in a watershed, with their different, and sometimes conflicting, priorities, needs, and opinions, work together to share responsibility for keeping our water and surrounding lands healthy and resilient?

While the traditional role that provincial and federal governments play is still critical, new forms of local leadership involving First Nations, regional and municipal governments, and community groups are emerging across British Columbia. Watershed governance is about how these governments, communities, and water users can come together to develop plans and make decisions for the benefit of water – and everything that depends on it.

Although watershed governance can be defined in many ways depending on community needs and priorities, a number of core principles underpin the concept. These include:

  • Those impacted should have a say, including local communities, industry, and all levels of government
  • Decision-making should seek to ensure that there is enough water for nature and for people
  • The connections between freshwater systems (rivers, lakes, wetlands, aquifers) and their surrounding landscapes should be understand, as should the impacts that human activities have on these connected systems
  • There should be clear roles in watershed decision-making processes for all levels of government (local, Indigenous, provincial, and federal) and transparent opportunities for all watershed residents and users to inform those processes

What are the benefits of watershed governance?

Watershed governance has many benefits, including:

  • Building resilience to adapt to change and enable innovation
  • Leveraging expertise and a diverse range of resources
  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities, thus increasing accountability
  • Creating opportunities for shared learning and capacity building
  • Reducing conflict and increasing public confidence
  • Improving relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous neighbours
  • Supporting water dependent businesses from farming to beer production
  • Creating opportunities for local jobs in water monitoring, stewardship, and planning
  • Building social license for responsible natural resource development

What is the connection between watershed governance and existing government authorities and jurisdictions?

In B.C., various freshwater decision-making responsibilities are held by four different levels of government: Indigenous, federal, provincial, and local. Too often these authorities operate in silos and with little coordination. The case can be made that each of these authorities must simply “do more” on their own, but without coordination, the impact of each authority is limited by its inability to address the challenges that arise from overlapping jurisdictions. Watershed governance is about finding new models for decision-making that are based on collaboration and the sharing of authority and responsibility for protecting freshwater systems.

What does British Columbia’s Water Sustainability Act have to do with watershed governance?

The Water Sustainability Act (WSA) is the primary provincial legislation related to water extractions, withdrawals, planning, and protection in B.C. Brought into force in February 2016, the WSA is a significant modernization of the previous Water Act (which had been largely unaltered since 1906!). The WSA includes a host of new legal tools that can aid in wisely managing water resources and protecting ecosystems. However, regulatory development and implementation will require leadership from local communities and, government-to-government agreements between the provincial government and First Nations.

How can watershed governance support reconciliation?

Water is a shared resource, and protecting it is a shared responsibility. Water is therefore a practical place to advance reconciliation. Governments and groups with opposing views and difficult histories can often find common ground on water, and there is strong potential (and urgency) to co-create mutually beneficial solutions and governance approaches that recognize and respect Indigenous authority and knowledge.

What can local governments do to lead or participate in watershed governance?

Many local governments are interested in having a greater role in watershed decision-making and stewardship. Increasingly, residents are expecting local jurisdictions to play a leadership role to protect lakes, rivers, ponds, wetlands, and streams. Citizens are turning to local officials to help define community values around water uses. And taxpayers are demanding action to avoid expensive damage due to extreme flooding and drought. Many municipalities are finding innovative ways to lead or support water governance initiatives. Local governments have authority for zoning, and drinking water provision.

What can First Nations do to lead or participate in watershed governance?

For tens of thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have honoured, protected, and managed their lands and waters according to traditional laws and governance structures. Water is viewed not only as a source of life for all living things, but as inherently alive and with spirit. First Nations exercise rights and responsibilities related to water and engage in water governance in various ways, including:

  • Exerting inherent (Indigenous law) jurisdiction and authority in their territorial lands and waters, for example, by declaring water policies, laws, and strategies
  • Asserting Aboriginal and treaty rights as per Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act (1982)
  • Collaboratively managing traditional territories (where willing partners exist) through joint planning and decision-making processes
  • Managing reserve lands, including drinking water and wastewater infrastructure
  • Building nation-to-nation relationships and agreements with Canadian (Crown) governments
  • Collaborating with non-Indigenous groups on issues of shared concern.

For examples of Indigenous-led water governance, see the First Nations Fisheries Council report Protecting Water Our Way.

What is the role for a community stewardship group in watershed governance?

Community-based water groups have long played an essential role in local water protection. These groups or societies might include stewardship groups, streamkeepers, “Friends of…”, basin networks, or other similar groups focused on the health and protection of local waters. Their activities often include hundreds to thousands of volunteer hours spent on habitat restoration, data collection, water sampling, salmon fry salvage operations, and public education, providing a very cost-effective way to deliver on-the-ground watershed protection that governing authorities often can’t. Local water groups also have valuable knowledge of their local watershed and often use it to inform governments about the unique needs and challenges being experienced.

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