Flooding around the entrance of Mission Creek into Okanagan Lake has been a reflection of the impact of climate change on the spring snowmelt across the Okanagan Valley watershed. (File photo)

B.C. water sustainability plan pitched to Okanagan stakeholders

Seeking resolution to water and land-use conflicts

Ted Zimmerman has taken on a task that may appear to many as politically impossible to achieve.

As the executive director of the provincial water protection and sustainability branch, Zimmerman is heading up the policy development of a new Watershed Security Strategy and Fund for B.C., a provincial initiative to help synthesize water management along with health and land use directives under one strategy and provide the funding to meet those goals.

Zimmerman brought his philosophic approach to the Okanagan Basin Water Board annual general meeting last Wednesday (May 4), seeking feedback from various stakeholders who generally are searching for accountability for water sustainability practices and a unified voice on land use decisions.

Zimmerman described his agenda for water management as a multi-faceted approach due to the number of land use players involved, both stakeholders and government ministers, and creating a level playing field of initiatives.

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He also cited the need to include “a significantly greater role” from the First Nations and acknowledge the impact of climate change, the significance of which has already been felt in the Okanagan Valley in the past five years with flooding and forest fires.

“There is a very live conversation going on right now about how we look at a multi-spectrum approach to land base…where we come up with a single-window approach to short- and long-term planning,” Zimmerman said.

After Zimmerman’s presentation, Peachland Mayor Cindy Fortin voiced her community’s concerns about watershed protection, how clear cuts and cattle grazing are land use issues placing pressure on water management protection which leads to flooding.

“The auditor general’s report in 2017 reported about the lack of oversight going on in our watersheds, how climate change is creating a faster snowmelt, how little seedlings replanted in the forests are now getting enough coverage from older trees left behind,” Fortin said.

She reminded Zimmerman that the district had to pay millions to build a new water treatment plant as dictated by drinking water standards established by the ministry of health, yet the management of the watershed ecosystem seems to offer little avenue for local input.

“Building buffers around the lake area isn’t good enough. You pull back a little from those buffers and behind all you see is clear-cut logging.

Zimmerman replied a water-centric view of land use is what the watershed security strategy must move beyond, to contemplate how social economic and economic development issues also are taken into account.

“We’d like to have more say in our watershed,” Fortin countered.

Bernie Bauer, a UBC Okanagan professor in earth, environmental and geographic sciences, applauded the stakeholder engagement efforts behind Zimmerman’s policy efforts but with a warning.

“To make these things work you have to really scratch down into the weeds. I am really interested to see how the details play out as there will be hard decisions that have to be made,” Bauer said.

He also stressed the importance of ongoing water flow and snowmelt data collection, noting the closure of hydrometric stations to monitor water levels as needing to be reversed, which will require government funding commitment at the federal and provincial levels.

“It is the role of government to provide that kind of data infrastructure that others can use and learn from,” Bauer said.

Zimmerman responded data collection is not something the province can set into as the central authority, that there has to be shared accountability.

“The question becomes does funding drive the strategy or is it the other way around…that is part of a lively conversation going on at this point,” he said.

Zimmerman said the timeline for the new legislation draft to be presented to the provincial government cabinet by the winter of 2021-22, with the new strategy to be launched in the spring of 2023.

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