POLIS’ Oliver M. Brandes and Rosie Simms were privileged to be part of the Nicola & Cowichan Watershed Learning Exchange this past April. Elected leaders and staff from Cowichan Tribes and five Nicola First Nations came together with provincial and local government representatives and members of the Cowichan Watershed Board (CWB). The two-day exchange, including a field trip on the water in the Cowichan, offered a unique forum for co-learning, with the aim of strengthening mutual understanding about priority issues and innovative governance initiatives being led in the Cowichan and Nicola watersheds.
On the first day, the group participated in a tour of the Cowichan watershed. The field trip kicked off at the weir on Lake Cowichan, where discussion focused on the challenge of sustaining ecologically appropriate water levels, the urgent need to build climate change resilience, and the partnership approach to water storage. The group then visited the Skutz Falls fishway, where the conversation was about environmental flow needs for fish. Downriver at Stoltz Bluffs—the site of a major river restoration and slope stabilization project—the group learned about sediment loading and land-use challenges, as well as an innovative partnership model for river restoration and enhancing local fisheries. The tour wrapped up at a very dry section of the north arm of the Cowichan River, where fish passage issues linked to flows and sediment were obvious as the group stood on the exposed riverbed under the scorching sun.
On the second day, leaders from Cowichan Tribes and the CWB shared some of the watershed governance issues, accomplishments, and priorities being faced in the region. This discussion started with a review of the detailed work being done to improve partnerships and reconciliation for the long-term health of the Cowichan watershed, and included a description of efforts to update the CWB’s governance manual to include the Cowichan Tribes’ principle of Nutsamat kws yaay’us tth qa’ (we come together as a whole to work together to be stronger as partners for the watershed) and to recognize Cowichan Tribes’ jurisdiction.
The Nicola chiefs, provincial regional staff, and staff from the government-to-government Nicola Forum then spoke about the challenges they are facing and the steps they have taken since singing the Memorandum of Understanding to Address Water Governance in 2018. An internal session between Cowichan Tribes and the Nicola Chiefs followed.
The Nicola & Cowichan Watershed Learning Exchange is an innovative example of ways to create effective peer-to-peer learning around watershed governance and build better connections, understanding, and relationships between regions facing similar issues. Participants were able to share experiences, perspectives, challenges, and strategies around water stewardship and governance. Many in attendance shared their thoughts and impressions of the overall experience and committed to continuing the shared learning journey with a generous invitation to visit the Nicola in the fall to return the hospitality. This peer-to-peer learning session demonstrates the cutting-edge nature of efforts in both the Cowichan and the Nicola and it is exciting to see the leadership and commitment to watershed governance in both regions.