Indigenous and provincial governments work together to address water governance

Innovative Nicola watershed pilot project underway

Published On: May 11th, 2018

On March 23rd Nicola Valley’s five First Nation bands and the Government of British Columbia made history when they co-signed the brand-new Nicola watershed pilot memorandum of understanding (MOU).

This innovative project will promote the co-leadership of water resources by the Province and the Nicola First Nations with an overarching goal of sustainable management and improved health of the Nicola watershed. This represents a potentially leading example of watershed governance in action as B.C. moves towards a new paradigm in water management and governance.

The Province and the BC Freshwater Legacy Initiative are co-funding the project. The POLIS Water Sustainability Project has been advising the Legacy Initiative on this partnership and helped negotiate the Nicola as a specific provincial pilot project to apply certain innovative sustainability provisions of the Province’s new Water Sustainability Act.

In recent years, the Nicola watershed has experienced complex water management issues related to changes and concerns in water quality, water quantity, and the health of aquatic ecosystems. The provincial government and the chiefs of Nicola Valley’s five First Nation bands—Chief Aaron Sumexheltza, Chief Jordan Joe, Chief Harvey McLeod, Chief Marcel Shackelly, and Chief Lee Spahan—have been discussing ways to co-lead a Water Sustainability Act project to identify actions and tools that will address these priority water problems.

“This is a long-term undertaking that seeks to build a robust collaborative partnership,” said Scott Fraser, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. “The MOU demonstrates the Government of B.C.’s commitment to true, lasting reconciliation, and to fully adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

“I see this partnership as having a huge impact on our relationship with the Province, but more importantly, for ourselves as Indigenous peoples as we become one with our land again,” said Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Indian Band. “And how will I know the road we’re building is going to lead us down a better path? What are the milestones that we can look to? For the long-term, it’s full co-operation, full involvement, full inclusion in decision-making on how we regulate, and how we take care of the water together. There will be an understanding on both sides.”

Building on previous work, the five chiefs and the provincial government will work in partnership, and through the engagement of local stakeholders, to sustainably govern water resources in the Nicola watershed for the benefit of future generations.

The primary focus of the project is addressing priority water issues. Key outcomes will be determined jointly and are related to addressing environmental, economic, and social risks and resiliency; building relationships, capacity, and knowledge; and building whole-of-watershed approaches to water management. Possible outcomes could include developing a water sustainability plan, developing water objectives, improved drought response, and a more sophisticated and robust environmental flow protection regime.

The impetus for the pilot project came from an agreement between the BC Freshwater Legacy Initiative and the Province to explore innovative models for collaborative watershed governance and management. At the POLIS Water Sustainability Project, we believe that more watershed governance pilots and possible partnerships may form in different regions of B.C. in the future. These would help inform ongoing regulation development and provincial water policy priorities, including potential opportunities for additional water law reform.