Our Watershed Home: From the headwaters of Cowichan Lake to the estuary at Cowichan Bay, and including the large Koksilah sub-basin, the Cowichan is a world-renowned watershed. It is designated as both a federal and provincial Heritage River, and vital to the culture and economy of the entire Cowichan Region. Home to five species of wild salmon and four species of trout, the Cowichan River is treasured for fishing and recreational opportunities. The underlying aquifer provides some of the best drinking water in Canada.
The Cowichan Watershed Board (CWB) is a local governance entity created in 2010 to promote water and watershed sustainability in the Cowichan/Koksilah watersheds, ancestral home of the Quw’utsun First Nation. Co-chaired by Cowichan Tribes and the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD), the Board represents a unique partnership between First Nations and local government. Through this model, Cowichan Tribes and the CVRD work together to advance whole-of-watershed health, demonstrating a commitment to moving down the path of reconciliation. The Board has a strong track record of planning and implementing technical work, creating a culture of water conservation, promoting science-based advocacy and implementing respectful community-based solutions.
“We do this because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not because we’re mandated by the Province – that’s not what drives reconciliation. It’s local relationships.” (Brian Carruthers, CVRD Chief Administrative Officer)
“You guys are just as important to us as we are to you.” (Chief William Seymour, Chief of Cowichan Tribes First Nation)
However, as is the case in many watersheds across B.C., the Cowichan watershed (including the Koksilah sub-basin) faces a number of challenges to water sustainability, including threats to water quality, water supply and cumulative impacts to habitat. As such, the CWB is seeking ways to become more effective in addressing these challenges, promote reconciliation and take advantage of opportunities associated with the Water Sustainability Act. The Board recently undertook a year-long review of its governance structure and opportunities to improve the stewardship and protection of the watershed. Please see the report Pathways and Partnerships: A Framework for Collaboration and Reconciliation in the Cowichan Watershed.
(Photos this page courtesy of Parker Jefferson and Eric Marshall)
History and Strength of Cowichan Watershed Board (Excerpt from Pathways and Partnerships: A Framework for Collaboration and Reconciliation in the Cowichan Watershed, 2018.)
Stewardship of the Cowichan River is a recognized success story in British Columbia, with a well-documented history of community-based collaboration. The Cowichan Watershed Board traces its roots to a drought crisis in 2003, when extremely low flows in the river prevented Chinook salmon from migrating upstream, and Catalyst Paper faced imminent shutdown.
The response to this crisis was to create a plan for the watershed: the Cowichan Basin Water Management Plan (CBWMP or the “Plan”) [link]. This award-winning (2007) Plan includes goals, objectives and actions concerning water conservation, supply management, quality, habitat and biodiversity, governance, and communications.
A plan, however, does not go far without an ability to implement it. The CWB was explicitly formed in 2010 to fulfill this critical implementation role. The CWB’s mandate is to provide leadership for sustainable water management to protect and enhance environmental quality and the quality of life in the Cowichan watershed and adjoining areas. From the Plan, the CWB also drafted a set of its own “plain language” aspirational targets [link] to give focus and inspiration to the work.
In 2016, the CWB passed a motion to include the Koksilah sub-basin in its geographic mandate, even though it was originally excluded from the Plan.
Early on in the CWB’s evolution, it was recognized that the distant and/or compartmentalized governance bodies that made decisions for the watershed were part of the problem. Calls for “local control” resonated throughout the watershed, giving voice to the widely held belief that the people who live in an area know it best and benefit most from good management, and therefore should have more involvement in and responsibility for watershed decisions. From its creation, the Board has been a co-governed entity based on partnership between Cowichan Tribes and the CVRD. The inaugural co-chairs were Lydia Hwitsum, Chief of Cowichan Tribes and Gerry Giles, Chair of the CVRD, with Rodger Hunter, a coastal and wetland biologist and senior manager in the BC Government, hired as Coordinator. Other elected representatives from the partners also serve as Board members, along with community representatives appointed by the co-chairs or senior levels of government. The Board is also supported by a strong Technical Advisory Committee that provides both local knowledge and scientific expertise.
For almost a decade, the CWB has been active in the watershed, building a range of programs and growing into a unique and leading example of local watershed governance in B.C. The Board has successfully built capacity through partnership, embracing a wide array of supporters and community-based collaborators.