Access to information key for protecting RDCK water systems

·6 min read

The Regional District of Central Kootenay is spearheading a drive to give more power to local water users to protect their most precious natural resource.

The regional government’s Water Governance Initiative (WGI) has just completed the second phase of a project to enable more local input and decision-making power in the management of water systems.

The RDCK is leading the creation of a network of various groups – from First Nations to foresters to community water users – so they can work together to develop and protect local water systems.

It’s also developed a series of websites giving individuals and community groups free access to gigabytes of watershed data, allowing them to make decisions and plan the future of their systems better.

They can even read stories of how local groups have worked to protect watersheds in the RDCK.

The intent is “to enable collaborative decision making that supports the protection of watersheds,” a report to the RDCK board says.

“We don’t have the power to control, but we have can influence and we can create conditions for cooperative decision-making,” says Paris Marshall Smith, the RDCK’s sustainability planner.

Who manages water

The Watershed Governance Initiative began with push from the RDCK’s area directors, who found themselves dealing with an increasing number of issues involving watershed management and protection.

With concerns about drought, forestry, wildfires, population growth and other issues, it became clear coordination of water resources had to go to the next level.

“We know watersheds are vulnerable, as they naturally evolve and are affected by resource extraction and climate change,” says Marshall Smith. “We understand it is critical to protect the long-term health and safety of not only our communities who are dependent on watersheds, but the land itself.”

Trouble is, the RDCK has no legislative authority to do that protecting.

The Province has a Water Sustainability Act in place, but six years after receiving royal assent, municipal governments are still waiting for a coordinated leadership role to come from the Province.

“The act required that local government and residents respond,” a report to the RDCK board said.

So the RDCK decided to do what it could about it, launching the WGI last fall.

“The heat, the wildfires, the drought this summer really clarified the climate crisis we are living in, and clarified our need to act, and the Watershed Governance Initiative is part of the RDCK response to the climate crisis,” says Marshall Smith. “Communities are anxious and concerned, so something needs to happen.”

Baseline data

RDCK planners reached out to community and water user groups for input on what’s needed. The survey answers came back clear, says Marshall Smith.

“What we heard from people across the region is that they struggle to find relevant and accessible information, and they are often feeling a few steps behind those that are preparing plans for the watersheds for whatever activity is coming in,” Marshall Smith told the Valley Voice.

“So we thought we could make that accessible.”

A summer student hired in May gathered information planners knew they needed – like water flow, quality and quantity – and reached out to find out what else they should include. They held nearly 30 meetings with stewardship organizations and community groups.

The summer student and RDCK staff were able to develop portals for users to make watershed information free, easy to access and up to date (links are at the end of the article).

Water stories

Data collection is one thing – making it useful is what gives citizens more control.

“We talk about it as the democratization of information – which is sort of a lofty statement,” she says. “But if people can access information, if they can see in their watershed, that will hopefully prompt a different conversation in their community – ‘hey, look, did you know we have old mining tenures on our watershed that could be activated at any point, and what should we do about that?’

“It is empowerment/governance, but we’re hoping to provide some tools that communities can use for themselves to support their planning and management.”

The RDCK isn’t going it alone. Information is also being shared and developed with Living Lakes Canada. The RDCK is a partner in the development of that organization’s new online ‘Columbia Basin Water Hub,’ a platform to provided easy-to-access, standardized water information across the region.

Provincial role

The whole Initiative has had to be done by tiptoeing around the provincial government – they have absolute authority to set rules governing water. Marshall Smith says they realized early on there’s no sense going too far on governance issues or developing systems when the Province might be set on a completely different course.

“They definitely could, so as we proceeded, we want to make sure each step has value on its own…” she says. “So this summer’s phase two data collection and mapping has stand-alone benefit for communities.”

The RDCK’s goal is to better prepare and inform local water users (and itself) so they’re ready for the provincial roll-out.

Next steps

While phase two is complete, the work is far from done.

Until they finally see a plan from the Province, the RDCK will continue to build relationships with First Nations, industry, and user groups, she says. They’ll likely hold workshops to help people use and understand the new online data tools. And next summer, another round of data will be collected. They’ll also examine what role the Regional District might have in re-establishing water monitoring stations across the area, and keep building partnerships with various interests.

“We don’t want to take over or step in, but want to see if we can support or access funding that may enable that,” she says.

Marshall Smith says the next few years may see greater natural pressures on water systems, and the introduction of new rules and regulations by government. The best way people can cope with those uncertainties is by being prepared.

“I hope that people will feel empowered and know how to access the various tools that are available to them, and the tools will be responsive,” she says. “I just hope there’s a sense of a way forward. It’s just now there’s a feeling that it’s large and mysterious.”

Staff will be developing a budget for the next phase of the WGI in the months to come.

In the meantime, one good first step the public can do is to simply take a walk, she says.

“I would encourage two things: walk your watershed and get to know your watershed on the ground level,” she says. “The second thing is start to use the maps we’ve created to connect what you know with what you see on the map.

“You’ll become familiar with the language. And then you can reach out and we can have a conversation as well.”

You can see the RDCK web map with water data at https://arcg.is/j0Wze, and the web stories map at https://arcg.is/0qKWG1.

John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

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