Meghan Rooney measuring fish

Meghan Rooney, Photo credit: Samuel Chamberlayne

Watersheds, also known as drainage basins, are areas of land where all water drains to one point, often a lake, river or ocean. Everyone in B.C. lives in a watershed. Healthy and secure watersheds provide us with clean drinking water and are essential for maintaining and restoring our salmon and other fish and wildlife. Healthy watersheds also sustain local economies and provide natural defences against fires and floods in our changing climate. In other words, watershed security supports personal, ecological and economic security in B.C.

Despite the importance of watersheds in B.C., we have failed to manage them effectively. Government ministries have historically taken a piecemeal approach to managing lands and waters instead of looking at the whole picture and the cumulative impacts of development. Everything in a watershed is connected and effective management and decision-making should reflect this.

Last week, the provincial government took a step towards fulfilling their 2020 election promise to create a Watershed Security Strategy and Fund. After years of pressure by First Nations, NGOs, and others to address threats to our watersheds, the Province released a discussion paper proposing some goals of a watershed security strategy. While overall, it is a step in the right direction, we do have some concerns.

The comment period for public input on the discussion paper is open until March 18, 2022 and we strongly encourage you to provide feedback into the development of the strategy.

What we like so far

Strengths of the discussion paper are the inclusion of goals to improve co-governance of watersheds with First Nations and local governments, advance reconciliation and incorporate traditional Indigenous Knowledge into management decisions. As part of our work through our CodeBlue BC campaign, we have been calling for more local control and decision-making power for First Nations, local governments and citizens. People who live in watersheds are the most familiar with them and are the most impacted by management decisions — it makes sense for them to have a larger role in watershed decision-making.

What concerns us

Our biggest worry is that this “strategy” might not make a difference. Unlike a law, a strategy doesn’t have any legal teeth. So unless it contains strong, clear commitments on things that really matter, it won’t change the government’s behaviour when it comes to managing our lands and waters.

The paper has some big gaps that need to be addressed. Despite its title: ‘Watershed Security Strategy and Fund Discussion Paper’, funding is hardly mentioned. It is only listed as the tenth outcome, almost as an afterthought. In a proposed timeline for establishing the strategy, the lack of dates for rolling out the fund is a glaring omission. Achieving any of the proposed watershed security goals highlighted in the paper is simply not possible without adequate annual funding for things like habitat restoration, monitoring, training and supporting local decision-making. And the funds must be distributed effectively to people on the ground who are improving watershed security in their communities. There is no reason why funding must wait until the strategy is completed. The province already has an effective avenue for releasing more funds for watershed-related projects until the strategy is implemented by investing more money into the Healthy Watersheds Initiative. Through the Healthy Watersheds Initiative the B.C. government provided $27 million in 2020 for over 60 watershed-related projects that improved water quality and salmon habitat across the province and put people back to work. But that money is now spent and after last year’s droughts, fires and floods, it seems foolish to delay funding until 2023 or later.

The paper also fails to adequately address the need to ensure that all funding, strategies, legislation and industry regulations are created or updated to have a watershed lens. The status quo, disjointed approach to managing forests, lands and water will not protect our drinking water, wild salmon, or our communities. The need to manage lands and water at a watershed scale was recently reinforced by a report by B.C.’s Forest Practices Board that found that forestry practices could be improved by “creating a legal requirement to manage cumulative effects of forestry in all watersheds and renewing watershed restoration efforts to reduce the impact of historical forest practices.”

Despite these concerns, we are pleased that the province is moving forward with the development of a watershed strategy and fund. It is urgently needed and wanted by British Columbians; a recent survey found that 78 per cent of British Columbians say B.C. needs to make major investments in watershed security.

Take action

We encourage you to provide feedback on the strategy, not only to improve it but to show the province that we are paying attention and expect to see real actions and outcomes from this process. We recommend sending a written submission instead of using the feedback form and suggest you mention:

  • the need for urgent funding for our watersheds. Funding should not be delayed until the strategy is developed;
  • highlight the importance of local decision-making and co-governance in watershed management decisions; and
  • mention the need to ensure that all provincial policies and regulations that impact our lands and waters are strengthened with a watershed lens — meaning we must look at the cumulative impacts of development and climate change on both the land and in the water for all species.

Below we provide links to more resources that can provide more context and guidance for your submission.

If you would like to learn more about our work to improve watershed security in B.C., check out CodeBlue BC.


Climate Change Drives BC’s Push for New Watershed Plans – The Tyee

Context and Guidance for Watershed Security Strategy Submissions to Government – POLIS