The Beginning

In 2005, a set of watershed ‘change agents’ in nonprofit organizations, in government and at Selkirk College worked with the Columbia Basin Trust on organizing a Symposium. Groups attending this symposium identified a need for greater communication and collaboration to support their individual and collective efforts. There were several outcomes of this Symposium, including the establishment of the Columbia Basin Watershed Network (CBWN), the initiation of a the Water Quality Monitoring Program pilot project to train and engage citizens in water quality monitoring to national standards, and an initial set of priorities among water actors on sharing information and building knowledge and expertise.

The Columbia Basin Watershed Network founding members included watershed groups, agencies, and individuals in the Canadian portion of the Columbia Basin (the Basin).

After another Symposium in 2008, a Steering Committee was established. In October 2008 members of the interim steering committee convened to discuss strategic priorities. The results included a strategic framework document that identified priority goals and actions for the Network.

The Steering Committee involved several watershed group representatives, and set priorities for capacity building and engagement, support for watershed groups engaged in monitoring, communications, and an ambitious goal of watershed planning. The Columbia Basin Trust provided staff support for the Network.

In 2012, the Columbia Basin Watershed Network became a funded program with Mainstreams Environmental Society. The Steering Committee provided governance, while Mainstreams Environmental Society provided administrative support.

In 2015, the Steering Committee voted to take the next step and establish the Columbia Basin Watershed Network Society. The CBWN now has a Board, with several guidance committees with membership across and beyond the Canadian Columbia Basin. The Columbia Basin Trust continues to provide strong support for the CBWN.

Challenges

The Columbia Basin is a large and largely rural area in southeastern British Columbia that enjoys very high water and environmental quality and yet is challenged by the impacts of hydropower development, climate change, and other industrial development. A very high proportion of land in the area is owned and managed by provincial agencies, and an international body governs hydropower production and water levels that impact the valleys and the communities. While the population is growing relatively slowly, industrial uses and community values are in increasing tension as the economy shifts from a resource-based economy to an amenity economy of tourism, new economic actors, and retirements. Over a decade ago, citizens and government agencies recognized the challenge posed by an increased likelihood of conflicts, decreasing government investment in water information infrastructure, and a more pressing need for ongoing stewardship in a changing environment.

Why a network?

The key challenges for the Columbia Basin are small groups with large information needs, geographically dispersed, and with a diverse set of strengths and challenges. The idea of the ‘network’ was to build the capacities and knowledge required an to support an engaged and active set of regional community based watershed organizations that could provide solid information and participate in regional decision-making based on a rapidly changing reality.

Geography

The Columbia Basin is a large watershed area of mountains and valleys in the southwestern portion of British Columbia. The area is defined by the area drained by Columbia River before it crosses the US/Canada border and the US/Canada border itself. As a multi-centric rural area, water stewardship organizations face several challenges when it comes to communication, community building, and training and engaging citizens. Basic geographic and socioeconomic challenges include:  long distances to travel, different sub-areas in the region have quite distinct economies, and like many rural areas in Canada, the Columbia Basin faces an aging population without sufficient inmigration to boost economic activity. As well, in many areas there is a high proportion of non-resident landownership, which boosts property values while it decreases the density of economic activity. In general, this set of challenges requires more support for dispersed, small organizations in the network, and a greater reliance on peer to peer learning between neighbouring groups.

Decision-making

Historically, decisions with local impacts in the region have been made at some remove from the region, and in many cases this continues to the present day. For example, the Columbia River Treaty vests decision making about water flows and levels to a joint agency with participation from hydropower companies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and provincial agencies with federal representation. The decisions of this body have huge local impacts on water levels and temperature, aquatic health, and community economies all along the lakeshores and waterways in much of the Basin.

Provincial agencies, primarily the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, make decisions about the use of Crown lands. This includes water licenses, grazing leases, mining leases, and forestry use. Local governments and local groups may give input in specific processes, but local governments are advisory.

However, without robust local institutions of watershed decision-making, and with processes that are opaque and unwelcoming, engaging citizens in the activities of governance such as goal-setting, analysis and priority-setting can seem relatively pointless.

Climate Change

Climate change is both a barrier and a boon to citizen engagement in watershed stewardship. On the one hand, Basin citizens have been equally affected by misinformation campaigns as in other area. There is still a resolute proportion of the population that believe that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the UN in its efforts to establish word governance. Additionally, the severity and complexity of the problem of climate change discourages active engagement.

Climate change also acts as an encouragement to greater citizen involvement. In the most recent decade, the Columbia Basin has seen two years where many local areas experienced ‘1000-year rainfalls,’ many of which resulted in floods and mudslides with property damage, and some with injury and death. In three of the past ten years the region has experienced drought. Snowpacks have been on average reduced, and with drought and reduced snowpack come severe forest fire seasons. There is an increasing sense of uncertainty concerning domestic, municipal and industrial water supply. Water restrictions affect area residents close to home, and all these factors encourage greater levels of citizen interest.

Of these challenges, the primary challenge to the Columbia Basin is in changing the culture of decision-making to incorporate the insights of local citizens and watershed groups, and ensuring that those local citizens and watershed groups are well-equipped to contribute to watershed stewardship.

How has the network addressed these challenges

Collaboration

The Network and its member groups have identified collaborative approaches as a primary tool in educating citizens, in working peer-to-peer with neighbour organizations, and in building the commitment and capacity to participate in decision-making and to demand improved processes.

In 2008 the network hosted a second symposium at Selkirk College in Castlegar, BC, attended by 33 groups and organizations.  The goals of the second Symposium were to

  • Build the collective knowledge and capacity of municipal governments and watershed groups on various topics to move to a higher standard of water and watershed management.
  • Strengthen partnerships between local governments, agencies and watershed groups
  • Share information and resources.
  • Identify specific types of support and networking opportunities required by the groups to effectively undertake the work they are engaged in.
  • Share enthusiasm for watershed stewardship. Emphasize the “fun” in watershed stewardship.

Arguably, the most influential event hosted by the Network so far was the Symposium in 2013, Thinking Like a Watershed.

Attendance at Columbia Basin Watershed Network events continues to grow. Participants at the most recent Fall Meeting, Fresh Ideas for Fresh Water, swapped ideas and received training in communications and in the Water Sustainability Act.

Focus on high quality information and continued member group development

The reduced federal and provincial investment in the information on which to base decisions has created both a crisis and an opportunity. Provincial agencies require good information on which to base new decisions in times of water shortage, which creates a new opportunity for well-trained watershed organizations.

Water quality monitoring

Water quality monitoring has been a successful activity of several groups for engaging the community in their local watershed.  The pilot monitoring project developed skills and the data collected contributes to the overall understanding of the state of Columbia Basin environment.  Efforts were made to expand the Water Quality Monitoring Program, adding more groups and continuing training upgrades.

Member groups that are not part of the Water Quality Monitoring Program receive support — mostly from other members — in learning how to monitor water quality to answer their questions.

Mapping

Selkirk College and the Watershed Network continue to partner on the provision of mapping support to groups in the region, with the support of the Columbia Basin Trust. The Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre, with particular support of Ian Parfitt, has helped to develop innovative tools for watershed mapping, including web-based and citizen data collection tools.

Communications

Engaging our communities with watershed health through communications, education, and engagement activities is important to protecting watershed health. The Network has helped groups with training.

As well, the Network established a monthly newsletter and a website for sharing information between groups and across the Network.

Conclusion

The watershed stewardship groups of the Columbia Basin continue to work towards improved watershed decision-making, primarily through a more engaged and educated citizenry and better information.