Kelowna, B.C. – The B.C. government’s announcement of a Watershed Security Strategy and Fund (WSSF) is being applauded by the Okanagan Basin Water Board, but the local watershed agency is urging the province to be bolder.
Last week, the board submitted a letter to the province in response to a call for input to its WSSF Intentions Paper. “In general, we applaud the vision of the document, but we believe it over-promises without recognizing the inherent conflicts among water needs and watershed uses, and the lack of capacity at all levels of government and society,” the letter begins.
Among its recommendations, the board suggests five areas that require further attention, including: 1) support for local governments in delivering water management,
2) the need for the province to address conflicting ministerial mandates (e.g. in forestry, mining, range and recreation) and a commitment to protect water quality as a top priority,
3) water supply conflicts must be faced directly and openly, including acknowledgement that First Nations are B.C.’s first water users and the “First In Time, First In Right” rules within B.C.’s Water Sustainability Act must be amended to accommodate Indigenous priority rights, while also addressing other water needs, including agriculture,
4) development of a draft implementation plan that addresses capacity needs at all levels (i.e. local government/water utility, First Nations and provincial government), and that it be released for review and comment as soon as possible, and
5) that the initial investment of $100 mill. should be at least 10 times larger to have meaningful impact.
“We’re encouraged by the recognition about the importance of healthy watersheds to the well-being of the province, for drinking water, for the environment, and everything we cherish,” said Anna Warwick Sears, Executive Director for the OBWB. “It also seems like they’re taking a big step forward in reconciliation with First Nations and that’s all positive. Where we have the biggest questions are around the funding. They’re going to need a whole lot more.”
As proposed, the province will kick off the new fund with a $100 million endowment, with the interest being used to pay for projects. That works out to about $5 million a year. And while the intention is to have the initial $100 mill. endowment matched by federal and philanthropic dollars, the earnings distributed will still be a far cry from what’s required to implement a strategy of this scope, Sears added. “Regardless of where the funding comes from it needs to be at least 10 times larger.”
During the era of Forest Renewal BC, which operated during the 1994/95 – 2001/02 budget years, watershed projects received an average of about $66 mill. per year. In today’s dollars that would be close to $110 mill. a year, she added. “We should fund close to that level again. Watersheds are in even worse shape now, and we are even more dependent on their health.” Today, B.C.’s watersheds are not only impacted by logging and mining, but as the population grows so does backcountry activity, all the while being the source of drinking water for communities with expanding populations. Add the impacts of climate change and forest fires on these areas, and watersheds become that more vulnerable.
In 2021 and 2022, the OBWB made submissions to the B.C. government’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services. At that time, it recommended a permanent Watershed Security Fund, distributing $75 mill. per year. The board has applied to present this year and intends to address this issue again. “If watershed security is a priority to B.C., and I believe it is, it must be funded to reflect that priority,” Sears added.
According to the province’s Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, it is compiling feedback to its Intentions Paper to inform the development of a final Watershed Security Strategy for B.C., expected to launch in winter 2023/24.