Water House Rules: For Effective Watershed Management, Step One Is Getting All Affected Parties to the Table

By Wood, Chris | Alternatives Journal, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Water House Rules: For Effective Watershed Management, Step One Is Getting All Affected Parties to the Table


Wood, Chris, Alternatives Journal


FROM VANCOUVER ISLAND'S southern Seymour mountain range to its dry eastern coast, the Cowichan River drains a 930-square-kilometre landscape - an area a little smaller than Ontario's Prince Edward County. With its rural charm and boast as Canada's warmest locale (its name means "warm land" in the local Hul' qumi'num language), the Cowichan valley has become a magnet for retirees and disenchanted urbanites.

But a recent report card on this watershed, which is part of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, found its unspoiled ambience fraying, thanks largely to the influx of new settlers. Its prize Chinook salmon, which were once internationally famous for their abundance, are in collapse. Recreational pursuits pollute the eponymous lake at the head of the valley. Downstream, settlements have experienced crises of both summer drought and winter flooding.

Earlier this year, the valley's municipal and First Nation governments, with their federal and provincial counterparts, created the Cowichan Watershed Board to take charge of the river's future. A technical advisory committee and part-time manager support its dozen volunteer members. But watersheds are politically untidy places. The new board's jurisdiction includes expansive private forests, two municipalities, areas under federal and provincial authority and territories claimed by the Cowichan Tribes. In contrast to those entrenched incumbents, the Watershed Board has no formal standing, no income, owns no property and holds no legal powers. It's not even alone in its role: a Stewardship Roundtable comprising many of the same river stakeholders has met monthly for seven years. Other groups, variously constituted, claim to speak for individual parts of the watershed.

Vancouver Island's experience is widely shared. Around the world, the complex challenges facing water resources have prompted a sometimes messy, often reluctant, but increasingly necessary evolution in institutions charged with managing rivers, especially those that cross jurisdictional lines.

Agreements between neighbours over shared rivers aren't new. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations documented 3600 water treaties signed over more than a millennium between 805 (yes, 805!) and 1984. Nine or more cover the Nile River alone. The multistate "Madrid Declaration on International Regulations Regarding the Use of International Watercourses for Purposes other than Navigation" was signed nearly a century ago. But treaties that simply constrain signatories to agreed-upon terms of behaviour have increasingly been overtaken by more elaborate agreements establishing a variety of new governing entities - from large, well-funded agencies to quasi-judicial tribunals with permanent secretariats.

Three insights drive governments, against all institutional instinct, to cede authority to the emerging ecology of watershed-scale agencies at every level. The first recognizes unsustainable pressure on watercourses from human demands and a changing climate. The second acknowledges that the quality and quantity of water in a river system are intimately linked through runoff and groundwater to activity on the landscape the river drains. The third critical driver flows from the first two: it accepts that only informed collaboration among all public and private actors in a watershed can ensure that every land-use decision considers its impact on water resources.

With the share of world population suffering chronic water shortage forecast to rise from eight per cent in 2000 to 45 per cent by mid-century, "wars over water" are often described as inevitable among the 145 nations that share river basins. Basin-scale institutions offer a more hopeful alternative. One study identified 37 violent conflicts over water since 1948 (30 of which involved Israel), but noted that in the same period, international accords resolved 295 disputes peacefully. Most established an ongoing body to help resolve future conflicts. …

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