PARTNER NEWS: Natural asset management an effective way to ensure safe drinking water from healthy watersheds

Published On: September 30th, 2019

The following article was written by partners at the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI). MNAI is part of the B.C. Water Leaders’ Network, which is convened by POLIS and other key partners.


Most Canadians are fortunate to be able to turn on their taps and instantly receive clean and safe drinking water. But with a changing climate and increasing demand from growing populations, we certainly can’t continue taking that for granted. Municipalities are faced with the challenge of managing their watersheds as well as their overflowing budgets—a task that’s becoming more and more difficult to reconcile.

Leading local governments are realizing they can’t rely on engineered infrastructure alone to deliver core municipal services such as drinking water. So, when the Town of Gibsons, B.C. developed an approach to managing their assets and infrastructure that no other local government had considered before, local governments took notice.

What Gibsons did was recognize natural assets, such as their existing aquifers, streams, and forests, as infrastructure assets, and placed them into budgets and traditional management plans alongside engineered assets. This holistic approach enabled the Town to strategically and cost-effectively work with nature to continue providing essential services to their citizens.

From this pioneering work, the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI) emerged in 2015 to scale up this approach nationally. To-date, MNAI has embarked on 11 community-level natural asset management projects, as well as Canada’s first watershed-scale natural asset management project to help communities continue accessing clean and safe drinking water. It is also now poised to launch a second watershed initiative in Ontario’s Greenbelt.

The first watershed initiative involves the communities around Comox Lake and the K’ómoks First Nation in B.C., who clearly recognize their shared interests in protecting and enhancing their drinking water supply and have partnered with MNAI to determine how they can do so by working with nature in a sustainable way. The Comox Lake watershed currently provides drinking water for nearly 49,000 people in the City of Courtenay, the Town of Comox, the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) electoral areas, and the Village of Cumberland. Fish and wildlife also depend on that water, as does hydroelectric power generation. The work in the Comox Valley is now well underway, with a second stakeholder workshop in September 2019 setting the basis for both the technical work and enhanced collaboration needed to develop and implement strategies for natural asset management in a multi-use, multi-owner watershed.

While the natural asset management work on watersheds is new, MNAI’s work since 2015 has already demonstrated that:

  • Natural assets can provide the same level of service as engineered infrastructure. For example, healthy forests and wetlands can manage stormwater and reduce flooding.
  • The value of natural assets increases under scenarios of climate change and intensified development.
  • Natural asset solutions can be readily and effectively integrated into asset management.
  • Natural assets often have near-zero capital costs, lower operating costs, and the ability to appreciate in value over time.
  • By recognizing natural assets and the services they provide, municipalities can reduce risk.

With the help of nature, local governments can continue providing critical core services while maintaining and even improving the livability of their communities for generations to come.


For more information, to sign up for updates, or to discuss support for your community’s natural asset management journey, visit For more on this topic, check out the POLIS-hosted webinars From Panama to Canada: Urban Water Sustainability & Natural Asset Planning” (October 2018) and “Making Urban Water Sustainability a Reality” (February 2017).