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Interview: Simon Courtenay on the Canadian Watershed Research Consortium

Posted on June 23, 2014

The final POLIS Creating a Blue Dialogue webinar of 2013/2014 will take place on Thursday, June 26. The webinar—Resilience Thinking and the Future of Watersheds—will feature Ryan Plummer, director of the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre and senior research fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and Simon Courtenay, scientific director of the Canadian Water Network (CWN). Water Canada spoke with Courtenay about his work with the Canadian Watershed Research Consortium (CWRC).

Water Canada: When was the CWRC formed and what is the primary goal of the organization?

Simon Courtenay: The CWRC was formed in 2010 to develop aquatic monitoring frameworks in support of cumulative effects assessment (CEA) at the regional and watershed levels. A review published by Peter Duinker and Lorne Greig in 2006 (Environmental Management Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 153–161) concluded that the way in which CEA was being practiced in Canada was doing little to protect valued ecosystem components. Their major recommendation was the instigation of regional environmental effects frameworks. Because this had not been done before in Canada, CWN said, “Let’s take six areas across the country that have particular concerns and interests in the health of their watersheds, that can form partnerships of everyone doing monitoring, regulating monitoring, and benefiting from monitoring, and have an expectation of working together into the future. Let’s support them in developing the tools for doing the kind of monitoring Duinker and Greig were talking about.”

WC: The CWN’s website says the CWRC has six research nodes established across the country. Where are these nodes located? Will the organization expand to include more groups of researchers in different provinces?

SC: The six nodes focus on:

1) the estuaries of the Northumberland Strait region bordering Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia;

2) the Saint John harbour in New Brunswick;

3) the Grand River in Ontario;

4) the Muskoka River in Ontario;

5) the Tobacco Creek watershed in Manitoba; and

6) the Slave River and Slave River Delta in Northwest Territories.

The first node formed was the Saint John Harbour–Environmental Monitoring Partnership (SJH-EMP) in 2010 and it was set up as a pilot project to be an example for the other nodes to follow. Northumberland, Grand, Muskoka, and Tobacco Creek joined in 2011 and Slave River and Delta in 2012.

CWN had always been interested in developing a node in western Canada. We are presently working with the coal mining industry in Northeast British Columbia, along with local First Nations, provincial ministries, and other local stakeholders to see if the CWRC model would be of help to them in working together to develop a framework for watershed monitoring in support of CEA.  It is important to note that we always begin with end-users, the people who need to make decisions about water, and we ask them what they need to know to do their jobs. Those questions–those knowledge gaps–form the call for research that we then work with the knowledge-providing community to address.

WC: Could you give a brief overview of how the CWRC will help to shape regional watershed management?  

SC: The reality is that we don’t manage water so much as we manage our activities in, on, and around water.  The vision of our partnerships is to have everyone who is working in the drainage basin and potentially impacting the lake, river, or estuary all sitting around the same table to decide together what needs protecting and how best to monitor the health of those valued ecosystem components. The monitoring tools and approaches that are being developed are critical, but in the end, it is those partnerships, and how they function, that will determine the success of this initiative.

WC: Is the focus of the CWRC strictly regional? Or can research findings influence national policies and management strategies?

SC: Different issues require focus at different geographic scales, but because water flows downhill and downstream, it makes sense to begin, for many issues, at the watershed scale.  However, it’s true that there are issues that affect larger geographies, and mechanisms are needed to allow watershed groups to come together to address those issues. It has always been in our minds at CWN that the lessons learned in the nodes of the CWRC will find broader applicability. For example, the government of NWT is watching the work going on in Slave River watershed very closely for potential application throughout the territory.  There is a paradigm shift going on right across the country toward considering the impacts of our activities in the broader context of everything else going on in that water body, whether it be a pulp and paper mill, a peat harvesting operation, an oyster farm, or global climate change. Impacts and management are meaningful only in that cumulative context.  That’s cumulative effects assessment and that’s what we’re learning to do in the CWRC.

Register for the June 26 POLIS Creating a Blue Dialogue webinar HERE.

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