Leading up to the BC Election the WaterWealth Project has been going full steam ahead to garner support for better fresh water protection through 100% community control and the right to say yes or no to decisions that impact on our home waters.
Some fair questions were raised about what we meant when we made the ask for 100% community control, so I paired up with Parker Jefferson of One Cowichan to craft this opinion piece that was picked up by the Vancouver Sun. Take a moment to read it through and hopefully it helps to answer any questions you might have about what community control could look like for us in the Valley.
Water issues are making a splash this election. Local residents of the Cowichan and Fraser valleys have signed vote pledges in both regions to send a clear message to all candidates: Local communities should be at the heart of decisions that affect our water wealth.
We depend on water not just for drinking, but also as a way of life. Swimming, kayaking, fishing and beach time are all synonymous with what it means to be British Columbian. Water is also fundamental to our largest employment sectors, from tourism, to commercial and sports fishing, to farming and local food production, and many other industries that require water to process their products.
The importance of fresh water to our economy and healthy communities has been ignored by our politicians. Our major water law, the BC Water Act, is more than 100 years old and, while it has been under review the past few years, no action has yet been taken to bring it up to date.
Meanwhile, pipeline spills, chemical leaks from fracking, shortages from unmanaged withdrawals and contaminated run-off are the new reality facing many regions of B.C. Our own community experiences in the Cowichan and Fraser valleys are illustrative of the need for the new government to catch up and start taking the concerns of local communities more seriously.
Last fall, the Cowichan Valley suffered a crisis that saw the Cowichan River almost run dry due to provincial mismanagement. Following early summer rainfall, a delegation from the Cowichan Watershed Board, including local mayors and the Cowichan Tribes, pleaded with the province to store more water for the dry times ahead. The province refused. Water was dumped into the river midsummer when it wasn’t needed. When the drought arrived, 1,000 chinook salmon were lost. The Catalyst mill came within days of shutting down. The food fishery for the Cowichan Tribes stopped. Had the advice of the local water board been heeded, crisis would have been averted.
The frustration felt by the local community led to the formation of the One Cowichan citizens group, which is now calling for a shift in power from bureaucrats in Victoria to the Watershed Board, a local democratic body that is directly accountable to the communities affected by its decisions.
The Fraser Valley is teeming with life and includes majestic lakes such as Harrison, Cultus, Chilliwack and Stave. The Fraser River is the most productive salmon river on Earth. The richness of these waters supports sports fishing, tourism and adventure businesses, as well as B.C.’s most productive food-growing region. It is also the lifeblood of First Nations’ economic and cultural well-being.
Recently, residents of the Fraser Valley have been inundated with new threats to their water wealth — the expansion of the Kinder Morgan bitumen pipeline, a plan to open up mountainsides to gravel mining, private hydro power diversions staked for every stream, and contamination from industrial agriculture and urban sprawl.
The fear of the cumulative impacts of these multiple threats has brought citizens together to call for a long-term water sustainability plan for their region and a right to approve or reject decisions that affect them.
The groundswell of concerns in the Cowichan and Fraser Valleys has seen thousands of local residents commit to vote for the political candidates that will do the most to protect our water wealth. Our communities are tired of hearing about decisions after they’ve been made, and are calling for local democratic control.
Water has become a defining election issue in other regions of the province, too, including run-of-the-river diversions on the Upper Lillooet River near Pemberton, the impacts on groundwater of the Ajax Mine in Kamloops, as well as fracking and the proposed Site C dam in the Peace River region.
This election is seeing the awakening of a broad and powerful citizens’ water movement. Our politicians would do well to see which way the water’s flowing.
Sheila Muxlow is campaign director of The WaterWealth Project, a community-driven initiative in the Fraser Valley. Parker Jefferson is spokesman for One Cowichan, a citizens group in the Cowichan Valley.