Opinion: BC government takes bold, positive step with watersheds initiative

The new BC Healthy Watersheds Initiative will fund more than 60 projects and employ more than 750 people in 2021. We hope the province will commit to continued healthy watersheds funding in this year’s budget.

This article originally appeared in The Province.

By Aaron Sumexheltza, former chief of the Lower Nicola Indian Band, Neil Fletcher, director of conservation stewardship with the BC Wildlife Federation and Coree Tull, co-director of the Canadian Freshwater Alliance.

As we begin to glimpse light at the end of this long, dark COVID tunnel, a few unexpected bright spots have emerged.

Instinctively, we all understand that clean, fresh water is the foundation of our health. With last week’s announcement of BC’s new Healthy Watersheds Initiative, the BC government has taken an important first step toward securing this foundation.

BC’s freshwater sources — our watersheds — are the envy of the world. Our lakes, rivers and streams are the places we love, and at the centre of who we are. To many, they are sacred. Our watersheds grow our food, power our economy, provide homes to fish and animals, and, since time immemorial, have sustained the people who call this place home.

Yet a century of reckless resource extraction has left its mark. Too many of our watersheds have become contaminated and overexploited, wild salmon habitat has been degraded, natural flows have been diverted and blocked, and the clean, fresh water we all depend on has been polluted by run-off and industrial waste.

With the climate crisis threatening to further disrupt our critical fresh water systems, leading to droughts, fires and floods, now is the time to act with urgency and clear commitment, and we are encouraged by this government’s bold direction to secure and restore BC’s fresh water sources.

Following the 2020 provincial election, Premier John Horgan instructed his ministers to make good on their election promises to create a new BC watershed security strategy, backed by a BC watershed security fund. These commitments have landed in the mandates of Environment Minister George Heyman, Minister of State for Lands and Natural Resource Operations Nathan Cullen and Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Aquaculture Fin Donnelly, all of whom have shown themselves to be real water champions.

To begin moving from promises to action, one week ago, as part of its Stronger BC Economic Recovery Plan, the BC government announced the launch of the new BC Healthy Watersheds Initiative. The initiative will fund more than 60 projects and employ more than 750 people across BC in 2021.

The first wave of projects includes both First Nations-led and on-the-ground partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities — real examples of reconciliation in action that benefit everyone. These projects are job creators that leverage the skills of a diverse cross-section of British Columbians, from traditional resource workers to people who’ve been hardest hit by COVID, like women, youth and service-sector workers. These projects are generating employment opportunities while restoring wetlands, training workers while improving salmon habitat and boosting local economies while making our communities more livable, resilient and sustainable.

This may, finally, mark a turning point for the health of BC's critical watersheds. We hope the government will continue this work with a commitment to continued Healthy Watersheds Initiative funding in BC’s 2021 budget.

Because it isn’t just about watersheds. COVID has taught us many things, including the importance of home and why building the kinds of strong, healthy and prosperous communities where people look after one another is so important. The growing polarization of our neighbours to the south stands as a stark warning.

But water unites us like little else, and the Healthy Watersheds Initiative projects bring people together in partnership to secure and restore their local fresh water sources.

We encourage Premier Horgan to leverage the positive momentum created through the Healthy Watersheds Initiative into a permanent commitment to the health of BC’s watersheds by establishing the promised BC watershed security fund.

It isn’t just about now. Our watersheds face serious and growing challenges, and a changing climate means the longer we wait the harder it will be to secure and restore BC's water.

We ask the BC government to act with urgency, resolve and clarity of purpose to secure and restore our fresh water sources. And we ask all British Columbians to join with us to help build a legacy of healthy watersheds we can be proud to hand down to our kids and grandkids.

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