Season 2 Episode 2: David Slade in the Cowichan Valley

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This week Danielle speaks with David Slade, a water well driller in the Cowichan Valley. As the province’s March 1st deadline for groundwater license applications fast approaches with poor buy-in, Danielle and David discuss the potential groundwater crisis looming for BC’s aquifers.

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Danielle | 0:01
I'm Danielle Paydli with The Freshwater Stream, a podcast about B.C.’s watersheds and the people who care about them.

Community Member | 0:09
I love our watershed because of the people who live here. And all our lives are enhanced, enriched and supported by the river that winds through it and the complex ecosystem that it supports.

(Little) Community Member | 0:21
I like my watershed because I like jumping off the dock from, what lake is it again? Fuller Lake.

(Little) Community Member | 0:37
My watershed is amazing because everywhere is a watershed and everywhere rain falls. And it makes it so fun to walk my dogs, and to play and just swim and just amazing.

Danielle | 0:55
We're speaking today with water well driller David Slade from the Cowichan Valley about a looming possible crisis for B.C.’s groundwater. In just a few short weeks on March 1, 2022, the deadline for license applications will be up. And experts from the University of Victoria are saying that the government needs to act now to avoid having to choose between creating chaos for groundwater users or backing down and losing credibility.

Thank you so much for joining us to provide some insight on this issue, David. I'd love to start off by knowing a bit more about you and your connection to and work around the water and watersheds. And I'll also ask you to share a little bit more about your home, and my home, the Cowichan Valley.

David | 1:36
Well that's tough to do in a nutshell because the Cowichan watershed is magnificent. Encompasses Cowichan Bay that used to be one of the world class destinations for salmon fishing. And it's got Cowichan Lake which is a beautiful lake for recreation and sports. Of course we've got all of the First Nations that are part of our Cowichan traditions. It encompasses the Koksilah River as wel,l that join at the estuary at Cowichan Bay, which of course is teeming with life and has been a, I guess, a breadbasket for First Nations and for the communities that have come later. So it's vast, its’ magnificent. Most of my immersion in the watershed, historically, has been in the groundwater aquifers that also run underneath this glorious place that we are so privileged to call home.

Danielle | 2:29
Beautiful, thank you so much. So how does this magnificent watershed and access and use of freshwater impact your livelihood? Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you do?

David | 2:42
Well, I'm a born and raised water well driller. My dad met my mom when he was drilling a well for the man who would eventually become my grandfather. So the aquifers run deep through this place and run deep through my family. It's a third generation business now. And it's all intimately connected. Everything in this watershed and all watersheds are intimately connected. Forests and the rivers and the salmon and the aquifers and the people and the animals that all call this place home. It's suffered a lot, as we can all imagine, from the trespass that has been done. The logging and the fishing and the changes to the watershed, the river flows, the changes to the riparian areas. So there's been a lot of negative impacts.

But in spite of all of that, this is still a very, very magnificent place. And we still have some amazing forests, and even some amazing and hopeful changes to our fisheries. Where they haven't continued in steady decline, some of them are rebounding. There is lots that ties it all together and as I said, for me, it's been the groundwater aquifers and right now we're in a period of intense rainfall, which is horrible for a lot of people in a lot of respects. But it is recharging those aquifers where my family and me make my living and where the people who farm and have businesses in this community get all of their groundwater from that keeps them going through the dry hot summers.

Danielle | 4:10
I know we've seen firsthand, as you mentioned through some of the devastating floods this year that there's a real threat that's posed by mismanagement of our watersheds. What are some of the specific threats that you see facing your watershed?

David | 4:25
Well, certainly, the droughts have been dramatic in the last several years where the provincial government has had to step in and curtail the use of people taking the water for agricultural purposes apart from keeping livestock and human health. So for food stocks, they were allowed to still use the surface water and groundwater for growing food. But any other uses, apart from domestic use in the Koksilah watershed, were curtailed. So anybody who was watering their hay or their corn or anything like that had to stop doing it. And that's happened twice in the last five years. So I see that as a sign of the critical problems that we're seeing and river flows.

Danielle | 5:08
Yes, definitely. We see way too much water flowing into our rivers and our streams in the wintertime and then we see not nearly enough of it in the summertime during the dry months. To literally shut off the water has serious implications for folks. So what do you see as the key factor in this?

David | 5:25
Now, what's there related to well, it's easy to point fingers at climate change. But, there's also land use practices that not only contribute to that climate change picture, but also affect the way that the water travels on the land and travels through the ground on its way to the surface waters and the aquifers. So I think that logging has been a huge impact on our watersheds. And there's certainly a lot of debate about that, but it seems intuitive to suggest that taking all of the trees off of vast hillsides and no longer having the filtration and the ability for those trees to store and defuse the water, intensifies the runoff and intensifies the siltation and the gouging and the flooding that we see in the lower watershed.

Danielle | 6:16
So David, you've outlined quite a number of threats to the watershed, which means, and this is something we found through speaking with knowledge holders throughout the course of this podcast, that solutions aren't always straightforward, and there's no single magic solution. But we've also discovered that there's a lot we can do to ensure our shared watersheds are better managed. So tell me how does groundwater licensing fit into all of this?

David | 6:42
Well, so one of the big pushes with the provincial government for the last six years has been the Water Sustainability Act, and trying to bring that act into reality and practice on the ground. And one of the big challenges has been getting people to accept groundwater licensing as a necessary path to measuring and then managing a resource.

It's easy for people to see a lake when it drops down below its shorelines and starts to dry up. And a creek it's easy to see the salmon struggling to make their way up a creek in the fall when there really isn't enough water for them. And the graphic images of people loading salmon in the Cowichan in here loading salmon into trucks and hauling them up to their spawning grounds because they basically had no water to swim in because the river had disappeared. Gravel beds were dry in the lower reaches of the Cowichan. But those same concerns and passions don't extend, generally speaking, to the groundwater where I've made my entire living. And the reason is, of course, because it's not so visual.

There are places in B.C., where water tables have dropped by more than 100 feet. Can you imagine the shock and the dismay and the action that would be taken, if that happened in a lake and the only one of our publicly visible water bodies. It would be a crisis and people would jump to do something about it. But in British Columbia, what's historically been done, is when the water table drop 20 or 100 feet, it means that you and you come in and you drill another well or you deepen your well. And you can just keep on chasing that resource as it beats a retreat, really.

Danielle | 8:30
And on the government side of things, they are continuing to give out more licences, right? Yet we don’t have a solid understanding of how much we have in our aquifers yet. So, it feels a bit like taking we’re taking money from the bank without knowing how much is in our account, which could lead to big trouble. So it seems to me that folks would be onboard with licencing and getting a solid understanding of where our groundwater is at in order to make more informed decisions in our watersheds. Is that the case?

David | 8:57
So there has been very poor buy-in. Only 5,000 of the estimated 20,000 commercial users of groundwater that should have applied for licences have done so. And that’s over a six year period when its been a requirement with a window to apply which is set to close on March 1 of this year. It’s a crisis looming and it's a management necessity, we need to be able to measure and manage groundwater just like we need to be able to measure and manage surface water. If we don't, if it's just the people with the biggest pumps and the deepest wells, it's just a race to the bottom until the resource is absolutely depleted, as it has been done in some parts of the world where they have not been proactive in regulating groundwater.

And they are all connected because groundwater started out as surface water. And often it reappears as surface water again, going, feeding back and forth between lakes, rivers, creeks, and groundwater aquifers throughout the watershed. So it's a, it's a very, very interconnected cycle just like everything in the watershed, as the First Nations like to point out.

Danielle | 10:07
I know that you are both personally and then through your work on the Cowichan Watershed board are really deeply committed to reconciliation with Indigenous communities. So how is this linked to better watershed management?

David | 10:22
A push through watersheds around the province, as far as I'm aware, is to get more local management of our watersheds. So that's co-management. It involves the First Nations on the ground floor making decisions about best practices in the watershed, because they depend on the watershed just like the rest of us do. And they have a historic right to the use of the watershed and all of the resources in that watershed that, I think, has been sadly under-recognized and underrepresented. So the Cowichan Watershed Board represents an equal partnership in advancing the interests of watershed thinking, for the benefit of all of us. It's co-chaired by the Chief of the Cowichan Tribes and by the chair of the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD). So it is truly a cooperative, equal partnership. We have limitations in what we can do. Our powers really are the powers of persuasion, we have no legal authority in the watershed. But that could change. And I think that that's the hope that at some point in time, organizations like the watershed board that represent co-governance and equal partnership with First Nations will have some sort of governance authority in this watershed and others.

Danielle | 11:40
So last November, the provincial government committed to implementing a watershed security fund and strategy for B.C. How do you see this type of commitment to the health of our watersheds affecting your home, your work, your watershed?

David | 11:55
I'm the treasurer of the Watershed Board, so I'm very, very aware of the struggles that organizations like ours have with funding. We are basically funded by annual grants from Cowichan Tribes and from the CVRD. And that funding is tenuous. It depends on the whims of elected officials in both Tribes and the Cowichan Valley Regional District.

So it could end next year, if one of the boards decides that it no longer sees the value in this partnership, then the Watershed Board would dissolve. So having some kind of long term, guaranteed funding for organizations like the Watershed Board would be great. It would make it so that we could feel that we were an independent agency that would provide a lot of opportunities for us to expand our areas of influence and impact in sustainable watershed management.

Danielle | 12:54
Many of us have the opportunity to be engaged in watershed work every day, but for community members who want to help or support in whatever way they can, how do you see them contributing?

David | 13:05
Well, you know what, I have to tip my hat to the people in the Cowichan Region because in spite of the fact that we've had increased population, and in spite of the fact that we have had some extremely long, dry summers, our aquifers have been responding very, very well. There are people who are putting in drip irrigation, who are celebrating the fact that their lawns are going brown. There's farmers that have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, literally, in more efficient irrigation systems going from the old Rainbird sprinkler systems to the pivot systems that apply the water directly to the crop instead of throwing it up into the air, when on a hot, windy day 70 per cent of that water can disappear back into the atmosphere and be wasted. So the farmers and the residents of the Cowichan Valley deserve a real nod of approval for their wise use of water.

But there's limited things that can be done by individuals around land use, and even water use, because the big users are not mom and pop - it's not really washing your car. It really is the large industrial commercial users of water and land that have got the biggest impact. And it really is, I think, to a large degree up to local government to put the regulations in place to say how much water can safely be used out of a specific aquifer at a specific time. And of course, that can't be done without measuring and managing and licensing those water resources. And those responsibilities are government responsibilities. Ultimately, there has to be leadership at the top. And you know, that's true from a water perspective. It's true from a forestry perspective, it's true from fisheries, it's all of those things that we are doing in our environment, in our watershed, that we're doing in a while, quite honestly, a completely unsustainable way. It can't just be left up to individuals.

Danielle | 15:15
That makes sense, David. We definitely all have a role to play, but I agree that we need government to really step up and do a better job in terms of land and water use management and in my mind that means listening to local voices such as the folks on the Cowichan Watershed Board. So as we are wrapping up here, is there anything else you want to share with listeners of the Freshwater Stream?

David | 15:35
Yeah, I guess I would like to suggest that whether you live in this watershed, or whether you are somebody who might visit this watershed someday, it's worth getting out there and seeing all of the aspects of it. Visit the six mountains in North Cowichan, visit the Cobble Hill Mountain Parks and Trails, go up to Lake Cowichan, drive around the circle route, go all the way out to Fairy Creek and see the forests and the magnificent trees, the Koksilah old growth. It's an amazing place to visit.

And I think that if more people actually got out there and saw what this place looked like, they would be more concerned with not just preserving this for future generations. Seven generations is what our First Nations neighbors suggest that we ought to be looking out for. But even more than that, I think that they would have the concern about the management and the stewardship of not just this watershed, but all of the watersheds that are so necessary to keeping our ecosystems and ultimately our civilizations alive.

Danielle | 16:42
On that beautiful note, thank you so much, David, and to everyone who contributed to this podcast. Thank you for listening to the Freshwater Stream’s CodeBlue BC series, a Canadian Freshwater Alliance production in collaboration with our partners Watershed Watch Salmon Society, and always a special shout out to the audio genius of Mr. Brenden McDonald. If you'd like to contribute to this podcast or to all the great work that's happening to keep our watersheds healthy you can go to or and donate. If you want to connect with other folks who care about their watersheds across this province, on Instagram or Facebook join the CodeBlue BC online community.



We are grateful to acknowledge use of the following creative commons audio samples used in this episode: