British Columbia develops plan to protect drinking water and ecosystems

VICTORIA – Severe drought, wildfires, floods and landslides in British Columbia last year show that responding to climate change requires focusing on water and strengthening the natural defenses provided by healthy watersheds, expert says.

“We’ve all learned that the climate crisis is a water crisis,” said Oliver Brandes, co-director of the University of Victoria’s POLIS Project in Ecological Governance.

“Our best defense against these challenges is to keep our watersheds secure and improve our ability to manage water sustainably,” he said.

The British Columbia government announced Tuesday that it is developing a new strategy to protect watersheds and drinking water in response to threats posed by climate change combined with the effects of urban and industrial development.

The creation of the strategy is an important step in helping the province set its priorities and hopefully increase its focus on water as it modernizes land use planning, Brandes said during an interview. a meeting.

Restoring wetlands, riparian areas and other natural assets that filter water and act as flood buffers will require rethinking how and where communities grow and changing some forestry and agricultural practices, he said. he declares.

But it will also reduce long-term costs as climate change worsens, he noted.

“If you’re going to do disaster relief and rebuild, rebuild with natural defenses rather than built infrastructure which is costly and vulnerable in the future.”

A working paper released Tuesday by the Department of the Environment says areas of focus for the watershed security strategy could include the availability of clean water, healthy ecosystems, ensuring an adequate supply of water to support food security, as well as reducing the risk of hazards such as floods. and drought.

The document outlines proposed “outcomes” for the strategy, including exploring opportunities for First Nations and local governments to play a greater role in water management and more effective water integration in land use planning.

The province’s preliminary climate risk assessment released in 2019 identified seasonal and long-term water shortages among the biggest risks, which the document says are compounded by population growth and industrial activity.

The removal of vegetation from watersheds to allow for urban development or by industries, such as forestry and mining, can contribute to flooding and harm drinking water sources and aquatic ecosystems, he says.

The province is working with Indigenous peoples, local governments and others to develop its strategy and consider new approaches to watershed governance, Environment Minister George Heyman said in a statement included in the document.

“As the climate crisis continues, watersheds will play an increasingly central role in our lives by providing protection from storms and floods,” he said.

“Healthy watersheds are essential to ensuring watershed safety and resilience and are the foundation of healthy communities.

The strategy, due to be released next year, also includes a water protection fund.

The deadline for public comments on the discussion paper is March 18.

The province previously launched the Healthy Watershed Initiative as part of its $10 billion economic stimulus package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has allocated $27 million for hiring and training workers to support 60 projects to restore salmon habitat, map watersheds and collect data.

— By Brenna Owen in Vancouver

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 25, 2022.

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