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Interview: Oliver Brandes

Posted on September 18, 2014

On September 17, the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance resumed its Creating a Blue Dialogue Webinar Series with an exploration of current water and watershed governance issues in British Columbia. Oliver Brandes, co-director of the POLIS Project at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies, and Dr. Jon O’Riordan, a strategic water policy advisor for POLIS Water Sustainability Project, discussed a wide range of issues, priorities, and next steps surrounding the evolving state of watershed governance in British Columbia. Water Canada reached Oliver Brandes by phone ahead of the webinar.

WC: What is the state of watershed governance in British Columbia today?

A lot is changing. Governance, laws, and institutions, like so many aspects of society, are always in flux. We’re seeing a couple things happen simultaneously. One important piece is we’re seeing communities and local folks trying to be more involved in critical decisions. This is partially because of an increase in understanding, but also because of emerging priorities around ensuring both that fresh water systems are kept healthy and functioning, and that they get to engage in a long term way for the health and benefit of these systems.

The most obvious change we’re seeing in B.C. is that they’ve passed a new Water Sustainability Act. The Act has two important features. One is it begins to really prioritize ecological and environmental flows, acknowledging that nature is a legitimate user, and in a sense a priority user. The other piece is the way it enables the sharing or delegation of some powers around making critical decisions about water and watersheds.

The Act has a couple weaknesses, one of which is that it didn’t do a good enough job addressing First Nations rights and titles, but in other areas it’s quite strong.

WC: What are some of the “winning conditions” needed to help move British Columbia towards more sophisticated watershed governance?

We have identified six key principles, nine winning conditions, and then a number of key action items to move us on that path. That’s the focus of our report, “A Blueprint for Watershed Governance in B.C.,” but it’s relevant to more than just B.C. These winning conditions are elements that you would need to see anywhere. A winning condition is not necessary or sufficient on its own, but when you bring them all together you increase the likelihood of success.

There are a couple of key elements. A critical one is ensuring that there’s some kind of enabling power in formal legislation that gives watershed entities like boards, trusts, or authorities a legal mandate and a legitimacy to operate.

There are also a couple of straight governance components. One is that you want to ensure co-governance with First Nations. The traditional territories and a lot of their perspectives are very critical, and Canada hasn’t done a great job of either co-managing or co-governing. That’s a really important winning condition.

Local government support and partnership with local government is a third winning condition that we emphasize.

Another obvious one is sustainable, long-term funding. A lot of projects are catalyzed around fairly modest budgets, and maybe some kind of philanthropy gives a little bit of an initial push to catalyze them, and then they rely on volunteers and a lot of input from local experts. That doesn’t work in the long term. You need to create ongoing funding to build the capacity to ensure that a cohort of professionals are there, that the meetings are run, that there’s a capacity to govern and make those decisions.

The fifth is what we call a functioning legal framework for sustainable water and watershed management. There have to be enforceable water laws in place that ensure that enough water stays in the river, that the riparian areas are protected, that development happens in a way that’s respectful of the aquifers. That’s what British Columbia has tried to do by passing the new Water Sustainability Act.

There are a couple key elements like the need for ample data information and monitoring. We’ve got to know how much water people are using and what the impacts of the use are. We need to know what the implications are, the state of the watershed reporting. We also need to know some of the traditional ecological knowledge: how the systems have been changing, what the potential impacts of climate change are. It’s a blend of pure scientific information and the traditional and ecological knowledge that helps us understand how these systems work.

From a governance perspective, for this to function, you need independent oversight of public reporting.  We need to know that when there are issues we can have reliable independent bodies to help us understand the science, understand the issues, help resolve some of the conflict, and to make sure that once we have information, it’s readily available. And not just publically available, but actually accessible in a format that people can use, not just perfect.

Of course, when you’re dealing with watersheds you’re talking about cumulative impacts, so whether it’s forestry. or land use development, or agriculture, it all adds up, and activities on the land end up in the water. Assessing cumulative impacts is one of the major challenges going forward.

And then the ninth winning condition is recognizing that we’re dealing with issues that relate to resilience and uncertainty.  We need this continuous peer to peer learning and capacity building. We don’t know exactly what to do, and in fact many of these individual areas, or watersheds, or basins are quite unique in the mix of the social and the ecological, so we need to know what’s working in other places. We also need to recognize what we can learn from failures in other places.

WC: What can other provinces learn from British Columbia?

For one, the Water Act process here in British Columbia has been a good process of engaging a wide cohort of both communities and stake holders, and in some cases rights holders. Again, it hasn’t necessarily done a great job on the First Nations front, but that in itself is an evolving issue. I also think some of the key elements are really beginning to daylight issues that exist everywhere in Canada, such as recognizing that water is critical not only for robust economies, but also resilient and healthy communities. Citizens really care and that means we have to move from a resource extraction regime to something that is more focused on stewardship and fundamentally protecting the ecological foundation. That’s what this Act begins to do. It recognizes environmental flows, which I think is a really valuable lesson. What’s interesting about BC is that there’s a huge range of ecosystems, and because of that we had to build something that was quite nimble and adaptable. That’s a valuable lesson, because I think as the water law regimes evolve over the next decade, these will be important attributes.

WC: What made British Columbia a viable space to adopt this progressive act? Was it simply the fact that the prior act was 100 years old?

That’s a big part of it. It was a hundred year old act that was well suited to its time, but the province was a different place then. The land was really set up for agriculture and promoting mining, creating certainty, and helping to kick start our resource-based economy. In the modern era, we’re talking about high rises, high tech, increasingly high tides – which is kind of my metaphor for climate change – and that means you need to think about water in a whole different light, because water is where you see the impacts of climate change. I think that’s one of the areas that British Columbia was kind of grappling with.  You have a massively outdated piece of legislation and an emerging consciousness around water, coupled with the obvious economic and social implications, and that kind of drove this change and the creative thinking about this water act in a new way. I think British Columbia also benefitted from seeing what other parts of the world are facing. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Southern United States, even Ontario, and Alberta in the North; many of these places have begun to make  changes. Sometimes you’ll hear about leap frog technologies, but B.C. maybe experienced leap frog institutions and legal systems, because they kind of jumped ahead by learning what some other places are doing.

We’re not suggesting that we’ve got the magic answers. This is an evolving understanding, and we’re trying to identify some of the elements so that we can think about institutions and legal systems in a innovative way. You need to experiment, or be prepared to experiment, because we’re dealing in a very dynamic and complicated sphere. These winning conditions need to be grounded in reality. What we’re seeing is lots of groups of all sizes and all natures, whether they’re partnerships of municipalities or roundtables made up of citizens and First Nations, trying to be much more proactive in their engagement. They’re also trying to understand the role – and it’s really a changing role – of government, in its role from a historical top down manager towards something that enables local decisions and local solutions to deal with challenges.

For information on the POLIS Water Sustainability Project and all upcoming Creating a Blue Dialogue webinars, please visit

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