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.

Coordinating water-related activities among jurisdictions can deliver positive benefits as well as avoid conflict. Downstream consumers enjoy cleaner water and more secure supply when upstream actions take their needs into account. Wildlife habitat can be protected more comprehensively when actions are taken across an entire watershed. Economist Gary Wolff at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute (home of the authoritative biennial series, The World’s Water), has identified several streams of financial return when communities tackle water together rather than individually. In one example, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin coordinated reservoir operation and water withdrawals in four US states and the District of Columbia, in order to increase the river’s available water by 50 per cent, minimize ecological damage and avoid spending a billion dollars on new dams.

If the benefits of river-basin-wide institutions are universal, their anatomy is as varied as the geographies they serve. The durable, century-old Canada-US International Joint Commission (IJC) has three members from each country and can take up issues on referral from either government (although historically the two usually refer cases jointly). The IJC also mentors five regional boards created by local and provincial governments from Saskatchewan and North Dakota (the Souris River Board) to New Brunswick and Maine (St. Croix River Watershed Board), with roles ranging from monitoring cross-border water delivery to influencing land-use decisions. Given its pedigree and past accomplishments, the IJC has been oddly overlooked by its two sponsoring national governments in recent years. A future of increasingly strained water resources has the potential, however, to restore its central role in North American environmental relations.

The European Union’s 2000 Water Framework Directive required its 25 member countries to designate or create agencies, working across borders as necessary, to develop basin-wide plans aimed at achieving common EU standards for river water quality and ecological vitality. France established stakeholder water parliaments in its six major river basins in 1964 – well before the EU came into being. Financed by fees for water withdrawals and sewage discharge, they oversee water-supply and sanitary infrastructure (much of it actually operated by the private sector). The agency for the Seine River wields an annual budget over €1.5 billion ($2.4-billion CAN).

In Canada, Ontario has the longest experience with watershed-scale governance. Its 36 conservation authorities date to the middle of the last century and have statutory responsibility for flood protection for 90 per cent of the province’s population. Also active in habitat protection, environmental education and adaptation to climate change, they are supported by a mix of revenues including charges for reviewing development applications, support from municipalities within their footprint and user fees for recreational activities. They follow different oversight formats: many boards are seconded from local councils while others include non-political stakeholders. Some have great ambitions: the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, with a $100-million budget, has a program to create what chief administrative officer Brian Denney calls a “green silicon valley” of progressive industry and natural infrastructure around the country’s busiest airport.

In the last decade, Quebec and Alberta have followed Ontario’s lead, instituting local agencies to plan the care of most river basins in those provinces.

Something similar may be in store for BC. The province invited proposals for watershed stewardship groups – without specifying their form – in 2008, as part of a multi-year water-law reform. Rodger Hunter, a former BC Treasury official and trained biologist, as well as the new Cowichan Water Board’s part-time manager, expects those reforms to grant it at least some regulatory and revenue-raising authority. To establish political legitimacy for that role, and after a close look at Ontario’s success, Hunter said he lobbied to have the new board, “either [be] elected themselves or named by someone who was elected.” For now, Hunter says his board’s “only power is ‘suasion.”

The Cowichan Water Board’s influence, however, has yet to be proven against the less-structured but better-established Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable. A purely good-will-based get-together of officials from government agencies with boots-on-the-ground NGOs, it was first convened by the Lake Cowichan First Nation in response to a drought crisis in 2003. Critically, it also includes managers from Catalyst Paper, which holds a license to water for its mill at Crofton and operates the only control structure on the river. Kate Miller, environmental manager for the Cowichan Valley Regional District and Roundtable co-chair, believes the open sharing of information helped align the technical, moral and financial support ($1-million from various sources) that has helped remedy the erosion that threatened both salmon and Catalyst’s balance sheet.

Such inclusiveness may matter more than statutory muscle. When it comes to watershed governance, performance trumps form. Several studies have found that getting the right players to the table, setting clear but adaptive objectives, and an equitable distribution of benefits all contribute to producing watershed-scale returns. More basic, but most important though, is the need to manage rivers on a watershed basis. It may be difficult to “prove” that Ontario’s nearly four decades of watershed-level management is better than the alternative. But given strained inter-provincial politics, it’s unlikely that Alberta, Quebec and possibly BC would have followed Upper Canada’s lead unless they were convinced that the model offered a better way of coping with the multitude of pressures that affect a river such as BC’s Cowichan. 

Chris Wood, is an author, speaker and journalist. He first wrote about the environment in the 1970s, winning awards for his coverage of nuclear power and agrochemicals. His most recent book, Down the Drain: How We Are Failing to Protect Our Water Resources (2013), written with Ralph Pentland, details how successive federal governments have neglected Canada’s water and proposes new thinking to instigate change. Wood, his wife and their two bull terriers live in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

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