Getting beyond inertia and disaster-driven policy response

This is your time and it feels normal to you, but really there is no normal.  There’s only change and resistance to it and then more change.“ –  Meryl Streep

I’ve been writing about change lately – change in climate and population. But it will take even more change to adapt to new conditions.  The challenge is knowing where we are vulnerable and how to respond, so we can protect the things we love.  But how do we get through the inertia to action?

Summer rains on Kootenay Lake - photo taken a few days before and a few kilometres north of the Johnson's Landing slide. Courtesy of Brynne Herbison.

It’s as true for individuals as whole communities.  People tend to trust their odds for most things – but suddenly, without warning, the ground can shift beneath us.

I’ve been deeply unsettled by news of the mudslide in Johnson’s Landing last week – a place I’ve visited often.  A tragedy is the worst kind of catalyst for change. Continue reading

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Everything you wanted to know about watershed governance

The need for collaboration is especially clear for water. Few things are so intimately linked with life and prosperity.” – Brandes, Marshall, and Sears

The biggest watershed new stories are usually about conflicts; lately in BC, this means mines and pipelines. People want jobs, but they also want BC to be beautiful.  What’s the  balance?  In the spirit of Building Bridges, it was a pleasure to join forces with Oliver Brandes (of the Polis Institute), and David Marshall (from the Fraser Basin Council) on an op-ed for the Vancouver Sun, promoting watershed collaboration.

Water leaders of the future.

The article grew from a watershed gathering held in Vancouver in late January – a crash course on collaboration, and a chance to learn what other groups are doing in BC. Basically, we’ve all been going it alone, with little formal communication between the Island, the Fraser, the Columbia, the Okanagan, and other watersheds.

Our op-ed focused on collaboration as a principle for watershed management, but we purposely didn’t dig into watershed governance because it hasn’t been as well-defined in public conversation. My impression at the gathering was that governance means different things to different people. Here, I want to share my sense of the common threads.

In a perfect world, environmental agencies would have lots of boots on the ground, and excellent data on natural resources and economics. They’d be making decisions that suit local needs and fund health care and education province-wide. Instead, the ministries are shrinking, we have pared-down budgets and high demand for raw materials. Yet we still need to protect water sources. We have to do more with less, and do more, regardless. Continue reading

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Why I stopped worrying and learned to love Water Act Modernization

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” ― Julian of Norwich

The other night I gave a talk to the North Okanagan Naturalists Club: a group of lively, mostly retired folks, interested in parks, birding and botany.  Given only half an hour, and asked to cover the spectrum of water issues, I bounced along topics relating to biology and the environment, trying to build a bridge between this nature theme and the nuts and bolts of water management.

A cross section of Okanagan aquifers, from the Okanagan Waterscape Poster ( see: www.obwb.ca/okanagan_waterscapes).

Hands shot up at the end of the talk, launching into a public discussion on natural resources.  Rather than fish and riparian restoration, the Naturalists wanted to talk about water agreements with the Americans, Okanagan population growth, and water law.

One woman in the third row, stood up and said, “What’s wrong with us? When are we ever going to regulate groundwater?”  While I don’t like to put a too positive spin on it, it felt good to say – “Water policy is slow to change, but I believe we will have this legislation in place in the next few years.” Right now, BC is reforming the century-old Water Act into the new Water Sustainability Act, and although we can debate the details, groundwater is one reason to rally behind getting it done. Continue reading

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Simple, home-grown solutions for the Osoyoos international water agreement.

When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” – Confucius

It is hard to think of anything more controversial than “Americans taking our water.” Questions come up at almost every public meeting. The concerns are not entirely unfounded: in general (as Trudeau famously remarked), living next door to the US is a lot like sleeping next to an elephant – feeling every twitch and grunt. This underlying sentiment, and the need to meet Okanagan water demand and environmental flows while being good neighbours, has created intense interest in the renewal of the International Joint Commission’s (IJC) agreement for Osoyoos Lake.

The Zosel Dam, circa 1970 - from the IJC website.

In this post, I want to share our “Made in the Okanagan” solution for the 2013 renewal of the Osoyoos Lake Operating Orders for Zosel Dam.

The orders’ main goals are to control floods and prevent water shortages. But everyone wants more certainty about water supplies on both sides of the international border – including water for the Okanagan’s reviving sockeye run. The reach most at issue for the US is the short stretch of river between the dam and its confluence with the mighty Similkameen River. While “certainty” may be out of reach in this era of environmental change, I feel we’ve come up with a strong set of action steps to get to our (bilateral) goals. Continue reading

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Water Stewardship for the 21st Century

The creation of the Water Stewardship Council is a significant action in advancing water conservation and quality…” – Greg Selinger, premier of Manitoba, on the national Water Stewardship Council (June 2011).

I think we might be going back to the future with our new paradigm of watershed collaboration. Having the right people in the room has always been a recipe for good government (probably before the Romans and Greeks…). What may be new is formally using collaboration to improve our resource management.

Goofing around at a photo-shoot for the Sustainable Water Strategy - From L to R: Anna Warwick Sears, Bernie Bauer, Tom Siddon, Kellie Garcia, and Nelson Jatel.

And let’s put “new” in quotes. The Okanagan’s Water Stewardship Council, Ontario’s Conservation Authorities and Alberta’s Watershed Planning and Advisory Councils have been on the landscape for decades. But never mind that. Ten years into the 21st century, this idea is coming of age. Continue reading

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Water leadership in changing times: trials and innovations

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”  – African proverb, quoted by Al Gore

I got fairly hot under the collar at a Bill Rees’ talk last fall – in my mild-mannered Canadian way.  He’s a UBC professor famous for his work on ecological footprints – great stuff, that I’ve used to teach classes in the past.  Where I took issue was the tenor of Bill’s talk. To begin with, I never do well with extremely grim forecasts. Being in the environmental field, the future can easily be cast in a dim light, but fearless optimism is more to my taste. We start with the premise that the situation is workable.

World population from 1800 to 2100, based on UN 2004 projections and US Census Bureau historical estimates - by Loren Cobb

Bill’s subject was climate change and population growth, the likely tides of environmental refugees, and how we needed to draw the line in some way on our own growth and development.

I grant that we need to change our approach to the growth of our cities, but as the world approaches 7 billion people this year, we have to accept that some will move here. We even welcome them – Canadians are aging, and we need workers of all kinds and levels of education.  Canada is one of the world’s great immigrant nations.

Although climate change is likely to be gentler to western Canada than many other parts of the world, we won’t be untouched.  Climate adaptation is, as they say, all about the water.  I’m often asked, “When will we run out of water? Should we stop all growth and development?” Continue reading

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Loving the lake so much it hurts: why we need a whole-lake plan.

Water, like religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people. Since the very birth of human civilization, people have moved to settle close to it. People move when there is too little of it. People move when there is too much of it. People journey down it. People write, sing and dance about it. People fight over it. And all people, everywhere and every day, need it.” – Mikhail Gorbachev

Here in the Okanagan, we’ve had a summer of news and controversy about lakeshore protection.  One study, covered by the Globe and Mail, reported that when provincial staff randomly checked 35 lakeshore properties on Okanagan Lake, they found 35 violations for structures or other disturbances to the foreshore. In July, a Foreshore Inventory Mapping study by a group of local governments and environmental organizations (OCCP), found that only 46% of Okanagan Lakeshore remains in a natural state. Later that month, in an editorial to the Vancouver Sun, Tom Siddon, former federal fisheries minister, called on the Premier to set a national example and improve protections through the modernization of the Water Act.

I think of this situation as “death by a thousand cuts,” and would like to address it in a way that doesn’t involve a thousand Band-Aids. This is an issue for water quality protection, as much as anything. I had a visitor from China this summer who couldn’t get over the health of our water, protected by the natural areas around the lake. Continue reading

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Watershed governance: how to build a vehicle for any terrain

“It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” –  E.L. Doctorow

 I have a terrible habit of using car metaphors when I talk about water governance. I can’t say it is climate-friendly connection, but they come out of nowhere to carry the conversation.

A photo opportunity in a Canberra parking lot, May 2010

In a previous post, I talked about our quandary: needing to collaborate and make decisions about water, and not having a formal structure to work with.  The government of BC has recently invested in several reports on governance as part of Water Act Modernization, and the end result is likely to be “enabling legislation.”  That is, the ability to establish a watershed organization under law, without specifying what form it takes or authority it holds.

This is when we all start talking about vehicles for moving forward. To a certain extent, everyone would like to engineer some kind of ideal vehicle for watershed management – a car of the future that can make it through any terrain. We take this conversational detour, even while repeating “one size doesn’t fit all.” Continue reading

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Osoyoos Lake – bringing international agreements down home

Wherever you go, there you are” – Mac Rauch (Buckaroo Banzai)

There will be heavy-hitters from Ottawa and Washington D.C. in Osoyoos next month, but they won’t be wearing dark suits and carrying brief cases.  They’ll be listening and talking to US and Canadian locals about the renewal of the Osoyoos Lake Operating Orders, hearing water science updates, and sharing in-season sockeye salmon, apples and pears.

I’m really interested in the potential of this cultural and political mixing, and the opportunity to be innovative when you take a bilateral agreement down home.

Bringing it all back home: In 2007, locals from the towns of Osoyoos and Oliver (in Canada) gathered with residents of Oroville and other communities just south of the border, joined by leading scientists, politicians, policy makers and agency folks – to discuss international policy for Osoyoos Lake.

Every good relationship needs care and communication – including our international co-habitation of Osoyoos Lake, which crosses the 49th parallel.  Most Canadians are a bit on edge about the US thirst for water. We want to cooperate, but there is a cautious pragmatism.  The Okanagan has relatively low flows, and we rely on irrigated agriculture.  On the other side, they have trouble in the Okanogan (American spelling)  “keeping up with the Canadians,” who come in droves to buy inexpensive vacation properties. The Americans have irrigated agriculture and water concerns of their own.

Then there are those that know no boundaries – the easternmost run of Pacific sockeye salmon in the Columbia are enjoying their second record-breaking year in a row for Osoyoos Lake and the Okanagan River.  This has huge significance for the Okanagan Nation, the Syilx people who have relied on and celebrated these salmon for thousands of years.

In September, the Town of Osoyoos will host the 2011 Osoyoos Lake Water Science Forum: “Shared water, shared future: bridges to sustainability for Osoyoos Lake”.  It is a follow-up to a 2007 Forum, but a step forward – very interesting and very unusual.  Continue reading

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Who decides about the water?

It's difficult to photograph collaboration, as it takes place through large groups meeting and talking together. Here, government folks, community volunteers, and university people gather to sign a memorandum of understanding.

It’s less worry about being in over your head, if you know how to swim.”

There is a sense of urgency about leadership in the watersheds of BC. I know this, because there are at least five workshops this autumn dedicated, in some way, to governance.

What’s going on?

The world is changing, and everyone is trying to catch up. In this new era, “governing” by a central authority has become weaker. Our budget priorities are focused on health care and education (not many quarrel with this emphasis), and the resource agencies have downsized. In the absence of strong top-down control, watershed decision making has to broadened to include many different voices. This can be a good thing, but it can also be messy.

And there are really important decisions to make. Who should get water? What activities should be allowed in the forested drainages around drinking water sources? Who will go after the polluters? Who pays for what? Continue reading

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