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Water Today Title May 30, 2024

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Update 2023/1/17

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Noah Nomad

A natural systems approach to adapting to climate change
WT Interview with Leanne Sexsmith, Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia

WT: Thanks for doing this, Leanne. You are the Director, Strategic Programs and Partnerships for the Real Estate Foundation of BC, and Co-Director of the Healthy Watersheds Initiative. How long have you been at this?

Leanne Sexsmith: I have been with the Real Estate Foundation since 2011 in different evolving roles, as Grants Manager then Director of Grants and then for the past two years, the Director of Strategic Programs and Partnership Initiatives and Co-Director of the Healthy Watersheds Initiative.

WT: We have heard reports of successful projects in your Healthy Watersheds Initiative adaptation and mitigation projects. Can you tell us why REFBC invests in projects at the watershed scale?

Sexsmith: Communities are so dependent on healthy freshwater systems at all levels: culturally, economically, socially and in terms of our ecosystems and natural environments and systems, so it’s really important and essential that when we are looking at restoration, looking at managing healthy communities for the future, that we take a whole-watershed approach. 

What happens upstream affects what happens downstream and vice versa. If salmon cannot return to the headwaters, the people that depend on the salmon, and nature that depends on salmon can’t access them. Likewise, if [salmon] can’t get out, back to the coast, their role in those environments can’t be supported either.

I think one thing we can learn from water is that not only is water one of our most precious resources -- it really sustains all life -- it flows in very interrelated systems. Unless you understand the relationships within those systems, you can’t support healthy, sustainable waterways and watersheds. 

WT: One of the REFBC priorities is investing in the protection of food lands; can you tell us how this goal is incorporated into projects that you invest in? Is the local food security priority also undertaken at the watershed scale?

Sexsmith: The Healthy Watersheds investment, 27 million, is one of the largest investments we have seen in watershed restoration in decades. One of the incredible things we have seen in funding work at this scale, with all the relationships, partnerships and interconnections between projects, this has enabled us to see all the co-benefits of the work across different industries and sectors. 

A lot of the projects have involved partnerships between Indigenous communities, Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), local governments and agricultural landholders because the work is benefitting all of them.

For example, in the Bulkley Valley, there are a number of landholders working with nations and NGOs to reduce erosion and sediment impacting the waterways, and flooding by doing a number of restoration techniques along the waterways. In the past, a lot of the agricultural land there was flooded out and very negatively impacted. This restoration is not only helping create a healthier river for the salmon, not getting washed out in flood events, the speed of the river is better managed with these techniques, there is habitat for wildlife and fish, also significantly reduced erosion of agricultural lands.

There are also benefits from reducing run-off and pollution from agricultural land, which has been a problem. Lots of benefits all around, and really positive examples of landholders working in partnership with nations, NGOs and local governments, such as Rivershed Society and Farmland Advantage.

WT: In some parts of North America, industry does not work cooperatively with environmental protection groups. In your experience, what is key in having these groups come together and work together?

Sexsmith: I think what is becoming increasingly evident to broader audiences across BC is that historic resource extraction and land use (practices) cannot be sustained. This is really important in building support for finding new ways of doing things and working in collaboration and partnership to make these changes. This is hard work, but there are some incredible examples of success, one of our goals is to support those examples, facilitate them and share the learnings.

There are some great leaders working in industry who have been terrific partners. There are others that haven’t been as engaged. Our hope is that the leadership that we are seeing where people are working effectively together, and prioritizing Indigenous knowledge in tandem with western science to find better solutions for everybody moving forward so that these examples can inspire others to follow suit. We have shared the stories of the work through our communications, videos and through the Major Outcomes Report that we just released in December, which strongly documents the benefits of the work and the partnerships.

Resources for this work have been a long time coming. There have been calls for this kind of investment for many years, and there was quite a bit of readiness. There is great leadership from Indigenous communities, who are making an enormous difference in their territories. Lots for us to learn from, there. 

When this investment from the province was made available, a lot of tangible success was able to be shown in a short period of time, which has been really incredible. Enormous kudos to the project teams, and all the partners involved for their determination, and adaptability. All this work was happening while we were seeing the many climate impacts happening across BC. Many of these projects held up well during the climate effects. There is still a lot of work to be done, it is critical to continue to invest in this work.

The other thing that is neat about this work, there is a whole industry and opportunity for economic benefits to be generated through the watershed restoration and planning work itself. A lot of training happened for people who had previously worked in the resource sector. Lots of contractors hired heavy equipment operators, and a lot of young people figuring out what to do with their careers became engaged in the (projects), they previously had not thought of post-secondary education and training and are now pursuing environmental certification, and water and land management careers. It’s really exciting to see the building of knowledge and capacity to do this work.

WT: Can you explain how the Real Estate Foundation is set up for investing in these projects, how is this work funded?

Sexsmith: The Real Estate Foundation has been using our grant funding to support land and water sustainability throughout BC for many decades. 

The Real Estate Foundation was created through provincial legislation in the 1980s, structured so that interest earned on residential real estate transactions trust accounts are turned over to the REFBC. We pool that money and invest in funds aligned with our values and mission, and these are screened through environmental, social and governance frameworks. This combined revenue supports our grant-making budget. It varies from year to year based on interest rates and the volume of real estate transactions and investment returns, in the range of three to five million per year. 

WT: When the announcement came through for the 27 million, was it a surprise?

Yes, twenty-seven million. That was a lot, it was a very significant investment. It was really timely, really important and very much needed. 

This Healthy Watersheds Initiative contribution was made through the covid economic recovery funding and plan that (BC) had. Because the Real Estate Foundation has a track record working in this area for years, and we have good connections to the network of organizations working in freshwater sustainability, the province asked us to administer this funding and deliver the program, which we did in partnership with Watersheds BC.

Continued investments at this and even higher scales are really needed to address some of the significant impacts that our communities are facing, not only from climate change but from historic resource and land use practices that haven’t been sustainable. So, still, lots more work to be done, we hope the outcomes of the Healthy Watersheds initiative will inspire and inform continued commitments from the province and other levels of government to support this kind of work moving forward. 

In addition to its objectives of restoring healthy watersheds, generating jobs and addressing climate change, another important aspect of our work is advancing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is a central objective and really important to REFBC, the commitment to support relationship building and partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and to ensure that Indigenous knowledge and practices are respected and woven into land and water management practices going forward. Tara Marsden was our Senior Indigenous Advisor throughout the project, we also had an Indigenous Leaders Advisory Circle comprised of eight incredible leaders with knowledge related to the work, from across the province. Their guidance and insight have been essential to how we approached the work, how we designed the reporting and documented the learnings.

WT: You mentioned needing a commitment to long-term investment to continue adapting to the impacts of climate change, and to deal with resource extraction processes that have left the environment more susceptible to the impacts of climate change. What is the most urgent work you expect to be taking on over the next five years?

Sexsmith: We need a really strong path to watershed security, with a commitment for many years, a long-term, permanent investment commitment to watershed security. 

I see three priority areas that need investments and focus in the context of addressing climate change and the climate crisis while upholding commitments to UNDRIP, healthy vibrant communities and eco-systems, and economies.

  1. We really need to rebuild our natural defences, to work with natural systems, in a whole-watershed approach, including restoring wetlands. These play an important role in flood mitigation, holding back the snow melt, and filtering pollutants from the water. As I said earlier, the importance of the upstream and downstream impacts is something the Indigenous communities have known for millennia. We have to get away from operating in silos and thinking that activity on the land in one small geographic area is not going to affect other things.
  2. We need to bolster the planning side of things. These systems are not static; they do evolve, and they do adapt and change. We need to monitor how our solutions are working and adapt moving forward. There is a saying “we cannot effectively manage what we don’t measure”, there has been a long call for more data collection and monitoring, we have some good examples of success in this area, but we need more.
  3. We need to strengthen the watershed governance side of things so communities work together at the right scale, respecting some of the regional differences in watersheds to build some of those more positive relationships for decision-making that consider the land use and resource activities that many communities depend on for their livelihoods.

We can’t keep doing the way things have been done in the past, we need to address these key pieces at a significant scale.

There is a lot of readiness, there is an incredible foundation here, and we hope it can grow and be supported, co-governing with Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders together.

WT: If you were going to speak to young people considering careers, what fields of study are key, and how much is technology going to play a role in this climate adaptation work?

Sexsmith: Absolutely there is a role for technology in data collection and monitoring, we have seen that at work in our projects.

I would suggest looking into “Aqua-hacking”, a program that partners university students with local NGOs to address freshwater issues through tech solutions, and runs competitions with teams to develop new tech for watershed issues.

We have amazing engineers working on our projects, both the low-tech and more technical engineered solutions supported through the Healthy Watersheds initiative, but in all cases, they are working with the natural systems rather than against them.

More information on the Healthy Watersheds Initiative:



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