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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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Update 2022/12/27
Climate Change

brought to you in part by

Noah Nomad

Winning at water security in BC
Collaboration proves climate adaptation works

Interview with Zita Botelho, Watersheds BC

WT: Welcome Zita, thanks for doing this. Tell us about your organization, and how you are set up to work with the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia, what is the goal?

Zita Botelho: Watersheds BC is a partner working with the Real Estate Foundation of BC in the delivery of the Healthy Watersheds Initiative. 

Watersheds BC was developed to strengthen the capacity among different organizations and actors in BC that were working towards watershed security and watershed governance. The ways that we do that: are training, knowledge sharing, and resource development. We played a role in helping to establish the Healthy Watersheds Initiative, working with the Real Estate Foundation to deliver 27 million dollars of Covid relief funding for job creation and economic development during the pandemic. The third partner in this is the province of BC which allocated 27 million dollars. We had a long-standing relationship with the Real Estate Foundation and so it was a natural fit for us to help them deliver this work.

WT: We understand that you've just come back from the Congress of Parties (COP) Biodiversity Convention meetings in Montreal. What is the state of affairs with climate and biodiversity, as far as concerns Watersheds BC?

Botelho: It concerns a lot more than Watersheds BC. Climate COP and the Biodiversity COP are inextricably linked to water security and watershed security.

The Climate crisis is really a water crisis. Zita Botelho Watersheds BC

We see this across Canada, the way the climate has impacted a number of factors and water crises across the country. 

We have a lens for how to deal with mitigation, and for the first time, there were more robust discussions around adaptation. 

At COP 15, there is a recognition globally that we have this one planet. We are trying to deal with climate issues impacting the viability of the planet, the Biodiversity conference is looking for targets we can identify, establish and work toward globally to ensure we are addressing both mass extinction and loss of biodiversity. It is important to have people coming together to try to address the issue of biodiversity loss head-on. Water is central to all of this, a very explicit part of the conversation in the biodiversity conservation space, both freshwater and marine water are recognized as critical elements to overall planetary health and well-being. Watersheds BC deals with fresh water.

WT: Tell us more about what you discussed and contributed to in Montreal, how does this come down to your sphere of influence, in BC? What was your takeaway from the global gathering that you will make practical in your organization?

Botelho: We are really lucky in British Columbia. There is a strong network of water organizations that have really different strengths and we work together very closely. The Healthy Watersheds Initiative is the inspiration for that, working to support a variety of organizations across the province. Most importantly, the Indigenous communities and governments. One of the things reassuring about COP is a strong recognition that Indigenous treaties and communities are central to the future of community security overall, we call it watershed security. This parallels what we are doing in BC, and I think we are ahead in BC, on this element.

Secondly, a large part of the discussion that I was more involved in at the COP and also here in BC is the funding for watershed work. There is a recognition that governments cannot fund all the work that needs to happen for restoration and conservation, and that the private sector has a role to play in this as well. There needs to be investment in watershed security and freshwater health, not just from philanthropy and not just from our provincial and federal governments. The private sector is working pretty hard to figure out what that looks like and how that (investment) can happen.

In BC we are advocating strongly for a long-term sustainable platform, which has been committed to by this government, a watershed security fund. That would be a long-term sustainable source of funding for the variety of actors who need to be part of the solutions developed at a local level. It is tough for folks who don't understand the Indigenous economy- ecological and community dynamics and values- to be part of the solution.

So we work with key organizations and local governments in the Healthy Watersheds initiative to show how the initial investment of 27 million was leveraged into over 37 million, (allowing) us to be able to do more work around the province. 

WT: Can you tell us about the work, how does this look on the ground? What is the work that's being performed? You've mentioned adaptation, I imagine consultation, go ahead and tell us.

Botelho: Quite a wide variety of projects were funded through the Healthy Watersheds Initiative. Significant wetland restoration work happened across the province, including design and restoration, inventories and monitoring, plantings and mapping. (This includes) riparian restorations in areas that are important for fish populations, particularly salmon and working with local governments wanting to make changes to some of their local infrastructures. One project included the decommissioning of a dam and an enormous restoration initiative. Another was installing fish-friendly floodgates. So, there are many systems, particularly in the Fraser, throughout the Columbia as well as the Nechako where there are fish getting to where they need to go. Simple fixes in terms of design and infrastructure like having the fish-friendly flood gate were a great example of the thoughtful rebuilding of infrastructure to make it easier for species that we are investing in.

Working in partnership with many First Nations organizations where there is really significant restoration work happening. Watersheds are (now) seeing higher returns of salmon in the region. The change in the landscape is hard to miss, visiting the sites a year apart, the results were just unbelievable. In the Upper Fraser Fisheries Alliance, a First Nation alliance was able to engage in the development of a weir, and in the Nechako region to expand their water monitoring network capabilities in real-time along with the use of a new data platform. This allows for the collection of their own information for data sovereignty they haven’t had, to be able to own and control the monitoring, to be able to talk to people in the crown organizations in a way they haven’t been able to, expanding a wide array of work.

WT: What would you say is key to raising the commitment for funding, what is key to the successful implementation of these projects?

Botelho: To get us the funding, it was our strong history of relationships and work among the water communities. We were able to convince governments to give us a chance. You need champions in government, and the local leadership willing to do the work.

Part of the success of the watershed initiative is that we were committed to, in every element of the design, trying to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and be careful that the lens for adaptation was thoughtful. We established an Indigenous leadership circle, the advisory circle, building on the experience and leadership of the Real Estate Foundation.

It was really important we had allocated staff, a senior Indigenous advisor, we had Indigenous support staff, granted in a way that was really thoughtful.

Also on the ground, we have a very committed group of people across the province that did this work under really challenging circumstances.

This is the largest investment in a generation for this kind of work.

Many were just waiting and willing to jump in and do this work within a year. This was not flexible funding, it was very targeted, it had to be spent in a year. It was quite a pressure cooker, and yet communities across the province met that challenge. It shows the commitment people have to their watersheds, and how central is to the culture and identity of British Columbians; how much reverence there is for creatures and animals in those ecosystems that we love to see and know that they are thriving in our watersheds to recognition among people, that without our watersheds, our livelihoods are threatened. We saw that with the atmospheric river last year.

There are significant adaptation benefits that we saw from the work, from attenuating areas that would have flooded in the past. We saw in the Fraser Valley, in one of the restoration project sites, salmon were able to hang out in a tributary of one of the areas that had been restored. They would have been washed out into farmers’ fields otherwise. There are real benefits in real-time work that was done in just over a year. It’s the collaboration, folks on the ground and the funding to be able to catalyze it, that was really key.

WT: You have mentioned the restoration of wetlands, what other measures are you working on specifically for flood mitigation and adaptation?

Botelho: We are working on many things across the network, particularly on how flood and recovery work is happening in BC now. One of the key missions is ensuring that both the provincial and local governments are planning for the future, which includes looking for natural solutions to the work and not just built infrastructure. We know that there are natural solutions and natural infrastructure that has been disregarded in the past. 

We are seeing some recognition from the province, in their flood recovery planning drafts, with their initial strategies, those communities are often hardest hit. We saw that in the fires in Lillooet, and in the Cowichan area year in and year out.

The other is, the mapping is obviously an issue but there needs to be recognition that we just cannot build in some areas, the flood risk is just too high. This is a hard pill to swallow for many. We have to learn, this is not just in BC, planning where we build in the future, knowing the storms are going to get more severe not less.

Adaptation has to be top of mind in decision-making all across governments: local, provincial and federal. The federal government has a very important role to play in terms of mapping.

WT: From the global perspective of COP what is your view on what is coming, in terms of atmospheric rivers? What are we looking forward to, what trying to adapt for?

Botelho: I am not a climatologist. This is not my area of expertise. From a water perspective, all I can say is what we have been told by the scientists, that we will have more erratic patterns of weather: more water at certain times of the year and less water at other times of the year. 

So, we need to ensure that our land use practices are having a minimal impact on the landscape and recognize the way land use impacts flooding. If we are practising forestry in a way that is destabilizing watersheds and increasing soil run-off and destabilizing slopes, then when these major events happen, we have impacts like mudslides. We need to understand (flood impacts) aren’t something that happens in silos. Everything we do becomes continuous, part of the chain of events of flood impacts.

There is recognition now that we have to prioritize how we use water and where we use water. This comes with hard decisions, particularly for the agriculture community and food security, ultimately. There are some aspects where technology can play a role. People’s minds are changing, in how we allocate the available water, and where. We have incredibly intensive agricultural areas that are water-dependent; at the same time, we have to ensure there is enough water for salmon.

It is not a simple fix. It takes everybody, contributions from everyone. From a global perspective, we understand all of these patterns and impacts. Solutions have to be sought within a framework that is acceptable to everyone. Decision-making has to be localized because no two watersheds are the same from an ecological perspective and from a social and cultural perspective. It takes compromise, bringing people together to do this work.

The Healthy Watersheds initiative really empowers other actors to be able to come together and find solutions that work for their watershed. I am not being trite and saying this is simple. No one entity or organization can do it alone. It requires collaboration and it requires different talents to come together, this doesn’t happen by itself.

WT: Collaboration being key, you say that private industry needs to step up. I am thinking about the mining fiasco in 2014 impacting Quesnel Lake. From what I understand, the mine has still not figured out how to deal with wastewater. How are you bringing industry to the table to not only fund watershed security but to do the right thing in operations?

Botelho: That’s a tricky one. What was very interesting to hear at the COP, was recognition and a call from the private sector to have clarity in requirements and rigour from the government in terms of what the expectations are. The environmental protections (legislation) in countries already defines what can and cannot happen. The standards have to be set globally. For those companies that are not adhering to standards, and who do not have an exemplary record around the world, there need to be stiff penalties.

In many instances, there is more support in communities. As Indigenous communities start to exercise more of their governance and rightful title, with greater rigour this will impact private industry.

There is more recognition now that capitalism cannot continue the way that it has. We have one planet. There have been levels of exploitation that have been unacceptable. The companies that are at the forefront of the future of this, I don’t know if you want to call it post-capitalism, a change in the way that natural things have been valued, there is a recognition that it you want to be at the front of the future economy, then you need to change the way you do things, in terms of how you impact climate and how you interact with the natural landscape. How this plays out in terms of national policies and legislation is part of it, and I feel like the public is less and less tolerant of bad actors. 

The other thing that is critical is, the recognition that northern communities rely on the natural resource sector. There are ways to transition (employment). One of the things about the Healthy Watersheds Initiative is the employment opportunities available in this sector, so people have access to jobs without being employed in extraction industries.

WT: If you want to give a shout-out to the private industry that is participating, how do you entice the others to come to the table and collaborate?

Botelho: One of the things we have is a strong agricultural sector, in terms of the water space, agriculture has been extremely strong advocates and serious about their ecological integrity. Water is a lifeline for agricultural work, and that’s where we have seen the strongest collaboration.

WT: That is great, I hope this extends elsewhere in Canada. I will leave it there, thanks, Zita.


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