Science can’t solve everything

One summer student’s insight into the importance of partnership in the fight for our watersheds.

By Alyssa Allchurch

Ever since I decided my career was going to be environmentally focused, I have been enshrining myself in science, and only science. Over the past 5 years I have worked hard to focus on the hard science of resource management, applying for jobs analyzing water quality, studying biological dynamics of salmonids, investigating the ecology of Olympia oysters, and the list goes on. I’ve prided myself on being a scientist and was never fully sure of the place non-scientists had in the environmental field.

Alyssa assessing the Colquitz river flow in August 2019.

This year I applied for and was accepted into a multidisciplinary master's in environmental and resource management. The program focuses on environmental science but also teaches principles of policy, economics and other social science foundations. I realized my one-sided background was not going to help me in my upcoming program, so I decided to try and branch out while looking for summer work.

I managed to find a job with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance working in freshwater advocacy. My time over the summer has been spent talking to people about their watershed, understanding water-based policy and trying to bring positive change through a people-first approach. Getting to work with groups that were focused on a combination of scientific processes and human-driven change has given me a completely new perspective on the importance of partnership and collaboration.

A lot of my time this summer was spent actively listening, which is harder than you would think!

If our diminishing resources are to be protected, especially our freshwater, we need everyone on board to make water a priority. That means bringing in people who are usually excluded from the conversation. 

During my time spent talking to the public this summer, I heard a huge variety of concerns. From those, I was familiar with such as fish health and flow rates, to loss of recreational opportunities, economic opportunities and human health concerns. I quickly realized the diverse role our watersheds play in our lives and that the audience I had been previously tailoring my reports and my public talks to were a minority. I hadn’t consciously planned to exclude people from being involved in watershed issues, but by only focusing on analyzing and reporting biological statistics I had unintentionally lost most of my audience. 

Scientists have a crucial role to play in protecting our watersheds. We need people collecting, analyzing and reporting data, this is how we can assess change. However, I’ve also realized that data needs to be relevant and understood by those who are rolling up their sleeves and doing work in the watershed. It needs to be disseminated in a way that all the interested parties can understand and utilize it, not just those who have a master's degree in hydrology. This information can be used to rally people, as well as shape policy and influence decision-makers but only if it is explained in a way that shows how it affects everyone.

The Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable group poses with our Chinook salmon mascot.

The event which stands out for me as demonstrating the power of multidisciplinary action was attending the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable. This meeting gathered together a wide range of voices working in water, including biologists, journalists, politicians, loggers, artists, fishermen and environmental activists. Throughout the day we had conservations I had never thought about before. 

Tim Kulchyski, a community member of Cowichan Tribes, shared his knowledge on the power of storytelling, language and culture. We worked on a metaphor-focused art installation about the river, an activity that my left-brained personality found very difficult. Additionally, we heard stories from Joe Saysell about the changes the Cowichan River has gone through from his perspective as an ex-logger. I left this meeting with an overwhelming feeling of appreciation for and knowledge of the watershed. A deeper knowledge than I had previously had while taking measurements along the river.

Genevieve welcomes the roundtable in Hul’qumi’num.

I encourage all of you, fellow science nerds, to take a break, go out into your watershed and start talking to the people you find there. Scientists go talk to politicians, restoration workers go seek out recreationists, academics listen to a logger and activists sit down for a coffee with a fisherman. Learn about the aspects of watersheds that ignite a passion in these people and keep that in mind the next time you try to make change happen.

This isn’t me saying I will stop working to understand the biology of the watershed. Not at all. Just that it will no longer be the only avenue I focus on. I plan to pivot to making space for those who traditionally haven’t always been included in the conversation. I will strive to make my work accessible, usable and easy for folks to understand. There is power in a diversity of thoughts, experiences and passions. I needed this experience to expand my thinking and I know I am a better scientist and water advocate because of it!