Reconciliation in Action in the Cowichan Watershed

Cowichan River delta_Gerry Thomasen_Flickr

Lessons Learned

  • Co-governance can manifest as a co-chaired and consensus-based coordinating body.
  • Earning a reputation as being trustworthy can help gain traction with decision-makers (Indigenous, local, and Crown governments) and watershed users and influencers, and help expand the coordinating body’s influence in watershed decisions.
  • Collaboration on projects can improve relationships between parties, and influence and support conversations about water governance.

Detailed Overview

In response to the summer drought of 2003, local organizations, industry, Cowichan Tribes, and local, provincial, and federal governments recognized that a more formal and proactive approach to watershed management in the Cowichan Basin was needed. They commissioned the Cowichan Basin Water Management Plan (‘the Plan’). Completed in 2007, the Plan includes six goals, seven targets, 23 objectives, and 89 actions concerning water conservation, water supply management, water quality, habitat and biodiversity, flood management, governance, and communications. Although the Plan was award-winning and comprehensive, two years later, little action had been taken. A leadership “vacuum” was stalling progress. 

The Cowichan Watershed Board (‘the Board’) was established in 2010 to take on the role of supporting collaborative local decision-making at the regional/ watershed scale. Nearly a decade into its role, the Board is well-established as a legitimate, knowledgeable entity that drives watershed governance in the Cowichan Basin. By using the “whole of watershed” approach, the Board (through its technical working groups) has acted on environmental flows management, water monitoring, water restrictions, and securing funding. The Board is still faced with a number of challenges, including securing long-term, sustainable funding and broadening and maintaining relationships among Board members, member agencies, and with provincial staff and decision-makers. 

The Board draws its strength from its collaborative, watershed-scale governance model. Its founding partners, Cowichan Tribes and the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD), act as co-chairs. The Board plays several important roles, including:

  • Facilitating and convening dialogues around watershed issues where all perspectives are shared and understanding is built;
  • Acting as a supportive or coordinating partner to accomplish important projects and solve problems in the watershed;
  • Leading outreach and engagement that builds broad community support (and commitment from local leaders) for watershed protection; and
  • Functioning as a legitimate, knowledgeable entity who can engage with provincial and federal governments on watershed issues.

What benefits have been achieved through improved water governance in the Cowichan watershed? 

Over a decade into improving water governance in the Cowichan, five distinct benefits can be identified: 

1. On many water(shed) issues, Cowichan Tribes’ inherent authority is respected by other governments and groups.

    • Cowichan Tribes’ inherent authority is recognized by other governments, through the Cowichan Watershed Board. Indigenous authority and responsibilities are not limited to on-reserve lands but encompass the whole watershed. Cowichan voices and perspectives are given equal value at the Board’s table.
    • Cowichan Tribes’ culture and language informs Board events and meetings. Important meetings begin with a welcome from a Cowichan Elder or a community member representative.
    • The Cowichan principle: Nutsamaat kws yaay’us which means we come together as a whole to work together to be stronger as partners was recently adopted into a new version of the Board’s Governance Manual, with the recognition that significant training is required for Board members to fully understand the meaning of this principle and its implications.
    • Cowichan Traditional Knowledge informs the Board’s technical working groups (who provide recommendations on water and ecosystem management to the Board). 

2. Diverse and rich local knowledge and science is informing watershed management and governance.

    • Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and Cowichan Tribes have established a partnership to collect information on Chinook salmon. DFO recently installed a Didson counter – a highly sophisticated underwater meter that detects and records the size of passing fish – at the request of Cowichan Tribes. The counter has provided new information about Chinook behavior, migration patterns and critical habitats in the Cowichan watershed, which can be used to inform decisions about lake storage and the timing of water releases from Cowichan Lake.
    • Following prompts from the Cowichan Watershed Board, staff with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development are developing critical environmental flow thresholds (a tool available under ss. 86-87 of the Water Sustainability Act) for the Koksilah river, which is greatly degraded but holds significant cultural and ecological values. This work will involve citizen science partnerships with local community members and has already resulted in a request for license holders to reduce extractions so that environmental flows can be maintained. 

3. Community-based solutions are being informed, debated, and advanced for controversial and complex water issues.

    • Local conversations about weir management are progressing. The Cowichan Watershed Board’s members unanimously decided that increasing lake storage is a top priority to help mitigate the effects of climate change and provide sustainable environmental flows for the Cowichan River. The weir (as a primary mechanism to manage lake levels) remains a contentious topic in the Cowichan Valley. The Board is supporting further public consultation on weir management, which is ongoing and unresolved. To-date, the Board’s engagement on this complex issue has helped build resolve across jurisdictions to identify a solution to provide more storage for the Cowichan watershed.Ongoing outreach and dialogue helped improve public understanding of the need for increasing lake storage, which in part has bolstered CVRD’s confidence to engage in this issue.
    • Water quality in Cowichan Bay is incrementally improving. Cowichan Bay has been closed for shellfish harvest for decades due to contamination, and restoration of shellfish harvest by 2020 is a target identified by Cowichan Watershed Board. The Board commissioned water quality testing, the results of which indicate that the primary sources of pollution are from dairy farms and sewage outflow. Changes were then made in waste management for float homes in Cowichan Bay. The Board has also engaged with dairy farmers, which led to working alongside the farmers to develop an Environmental Farm Plan. The involvement of Ministry of Environment staff was critical to engaging farmers. The Board, in partnership with the Cowichan Community Land Trust and Cowichan Tribes, is implementing another round of sampling and will share these results with the agricultural community and continue to work towards improving water quality. 

4. Increased funding is available for watershed stewardship projects and studies.

    • The Cowichan Watershed Board facilitated the submission of a $3.8 million joint funding proposal to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Coastal Restoration Fund. The project aims to restore the connections between the Cowichan and Koksilah River estuaries and to improve habitat for Chinook salmon. Since the eligibility preference was for First Nations, the proposal was submitted by Cowichan Tribes with chapter contributions from partner organizations. The proposal was successful, and in May 2018 the Tribes were awarded over $2.6 million over five years to execute the project. The application was reportedly pulled together smoothly and quickly, indicative of the level of trust and good relationships among the numerous partners. 

5. Local water bylaws are better coordinated

  • Cowichan Watershed Board convened all the major regional water providers, including large private water purveyors, who came to agreement on a common set of water restriction bylaws and established the same threshold for drought. Previously, water restriction bylaws were extremely confusing – they could vary by neighborhood, and they had different triggers and no enforcement – and were often ignored. 

Learn More

Pathways and Partnerships: A Framework for Collaboration and Reconciliation in the Cowichan Watershed (2019)

The Cowichan Watershed Board: An Evolution of Collaborative Watershed Governance (2014)