Engaging Communities and Enforcing Better Decisions for Water: Evolution of Governance in the Shuswap Watershed

Shuswap and Sicamous flooding in 2012_Prepared BC_Flickr

Lessons Learned

  • Legitimacy, trust, and buy-in is critical for addressing the complex causes of deteriorating water quality – and what it looks like when it is not achieved (i.e., how enforcement efforts can be derailed through counter-campaigning); and  
  • There are core tensions in governance discussions – win-win situations are not always possible, especially in situations of scarcity or where impacts are causing irreparable ecological harm.

Detailed Overview

Building Champions and Getting Water on the Agenda 

In the early 2000s, water quality concerns were rising for the Shuswap and Mara Lakes. Residential and marina development proposals were significantly increasing, which included applications to the Ministry of Environment (MoE) for sewage discharge into the lakes. Five applications for private discharge were approved by the MoE, which raised questions among residents about the safety of these operations for recreation and as a source for drinking water. Advocacy and awareness organizations began to form, including the Shuswap Water Action Team and the Shuswap Lake Coalition. These groups began lobbying for changes to regulations regarding sewer discharge and for greater oversight and action by both the regional and provincial governments for the health of the Lakes. Regional District directors and MoE staff also began raising awareness within their respective agencies about the health of the Lakes and about the fragmented state of decision-making across different levels of government for the Shuswap watershed. 

These efforts to raise awareness came to fruition in a houseboat tour of Shuswap Lake in 2006 that brought together local, provincial, federal, and First Nations officials. On the tour, the group viewed the development properties around the Lake discussed the pressures affecting water quality and fisheries, and the lack of planning and coordination among agencies. In the fall of 2006, the Shuswap Lake Integrated Planning Process (SLIPP) was established as a collaborative effort among public agencies, First Nations, and other stakeholders with the intent to coordinate land and water use planning for the Shuswap and Mara Lakes. From 2006 to 2010, SLIPP began meeting with the goal of getting municipal, provincial, and federal agencies to work on a joint decision-making process to set sound land use development practices around the Lakes. Three public advisory groups and three technical committees were soon formed to separately focus on water quality, recreation, and foreshore development. Sewage discharge into Shuswap Lake and pollution from industry, building development, and houseboat greywater discharge resulted in two algae bloom events in 2008 and 2010 – which heightened public awareness and underscored the need for collaborative solutions. 

Using Local Authority and Resources 

Government partners to SLIPP responded to some of the concerns; the Province established a moratorium on sewage discharge into Shuswap Lake and the Columbia Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) updated its Liquid Waste Management Plans and zoning bylaws and began work on Official Community Plans for the relevant electoral areas. SLIPP also catalyzed a three-pronged mapping initiative – with foreshore inventory mapping, an aquatic habitat index, and shoreline management guidelines – for the Lakes, with support from federal, provincial, local government partners and the Fraser Basin Council. In 2008, SLIPP’s strategic plan was to carry out the mapping initiative, develop of a visionary plan for water quality monitoring for the Lakes, and commission a recreational safety plan to an external consultant.

SLIPP then implemented a three-year water quality monitoring program (2011-2014), which increased the frequency, extent, and number of sites for water quality sampling to get a better idea of how the lake was functioning. Funding for this program was secured through gas tax funds from the CSRD and Regional District of the North Okanagan electoral areas as well as municipalities within the watershed. The Thompson Nicola Regional District also supplied funds from a parcel tax within the City of Kamloops. There was contention among the regional directors and mayors around the amount of funding allocated by each government, which ranged from $2,500 to $144,000 per year, yet each authority still had equal voting power in SLIPP decision-making. 

Public Resistance and a Shift in SLIPP Priorities and Focus 

In addition to funding for the monitoring program, the provincial Ministry of Natural Resource Operations acquired resources to increase compliance and enforcement around Shuswap Lake, and provincial officers began responding to foreshore management violations identified during the mapping initiative. Using the SLIPP name, officers sent letters to select waterfront owners indicating violations, granting a period to make changes, and offering resource support from SLIPP. SLIPP partners also conducted restoration work and removed derelict docks. 

These activities fuelled a suite of public complaints, mainly that the SLIPP had become overly bureaucratic and authoritative. Public misconception about how SLIPP was associated with other initiatives by the CSRD only fuelled this fire. Citizens’ groups like the Shuswap Waterfront Owners Association and the Preservation of the Recreational Economics of the Shuswap Society formed and spoke against the SLIPP processes, results, and objectives. Letter and media campaigns soon followed. 

In response, SLIPP shifted its leadership and focus. The Fraser Basin Council (FBC) – a facilitation-focused organization that does not engage in advocacy – took the reins on program management, enabling the Province to step back. SLIPP became a local initiative led mainly by elected CSRD directors with guidance from FBC regional staff and in-kind support from federal and provincial agencies. The SLIPP Steering Committee began to meet more frequently in sessions open to the public, and a proactive communications strategy was initiated to combat the negative image promoted by resistance groups. 

SLIPP entered a developmental year in 2014 to decide whether or not the program should continue. Analyses from the three-year water quality monitoring program confirmed that Shuswap Lake water quality was gradually declining in some areas, indicating a need for continued monitoring and remediation. With its history of controversy, some members of the SLIPP Steering Committee and members of the public did not think SLIPP should continue. A more narrowly defined program was created in response, focused exclusively on water quality monitoring and remediation of pollution sources. In 2015, SLIPP was reformed as the Shuswap Watershed Council, a watershed-wide organization dedicated to water quality protection and safe recreation. The Council continues to be managed by the FBC and has secured funding through a parcel tax until 2020.