Control of our river should be in our hands

The Cowichan River is once again in trouble.

With the low snowpack and unusually dry weather, Cowichan Lake is 40 cm lower than it should be at this time of year, while the river flow is down to five cubic metres per second, well below typical July levels. If the situation does not improve, salmon populations will be devastated and the Crofton pulp mill could be forced to suspend operations.

This is not the first time drought conditions have caused major problems with the Cowichan River. In 2012, chinook salmon were trucked upstream to spawning grounds after the river flow dropped to dangerously low levels.  Despite these efforts about 1,000 fish were still lost.

Part of the solution may be to boost water storage behind Cowichan Lake’s weir during the spring, making more water available to increase river flows during the drier months

At the heart of the problem, however, is control over river flows and storage lies with the provincial government through the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, whose approval is required prior to any adjustments.

Concern over these issues prompted citizens group One Cowichan to press the provincial government to allow for greater local control of the Cowichan River.

One Cowichan proposes devolving water management responsibilities to the Cowichan Watershed Board — an existing body made up of representatives appointed by Cowichan Tribes, the regional district, and the federal and provincial governments.

The question is would local control lead to better management of our resources, or would decision makers at the community level simply face the same challenges?

The research in the field certainly suggests that locals are competent enough to take on the task.

In 2009, political economist Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for her research on how local people can work together to sustainably manage common resources such as fresh water, arable land, forests and fisheries — even when senior levels of government are not involved.

Ostrom’s work was based on 50 years of research in communities around the world.  In places such as Switzerland, Kenya, Guatemala, Turkey, Nepal and Los Angeles, she found numerous examples of locals successfully managing common resources and solving their own problems, with many having done so for centuries.

According to Ostrom, these communities tend to establish their own decision-making process based on local needs and conditions, ensure those affected can participate in modifying the rules, make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities, develop a system for community members to monitor behaviour, and devise a procedure for resolving disputes.

And so back to the Cowichan River.  Can the locals be trusted to control such a valuable resource?

We may well be the only ones capable of managing the river sustainably during this age of worsening drought conditions and unpredictable weather patterns.

Rob Douglas is Constituency President of the Cowichan Valley NDP.  He writes monthly for the Cowichan News Leader Pictorial and can be reached at douglas.robert.g@gmail.com.  The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NDP.

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