A Tale of Two Budgets

Federal and B.C. water security funding a study in contrasts

Published On: June 22nd, 2022

The connection and relationship between water and climate is becoming ever more obvious in B.C., Canada, and beyond. This past year alone, many have experienced devastating and deadly floods, droughts, or fires, and witnessed the damaging impacts on community safety, agriculture, ecosystems, watershed security, and local prosperity.

At POLIS, an important part of our mission is to help generate the necessary change towards a sustainable and secure freshwater future. And we know that how we collectively manage and govern water will directly inform how we adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

A priority for our team is to push for strong government leadership, at all levels, to address the serious water challenges people across the country are facing due to climate change and that, in our view, will only increase over time. One area in particular where governments can catalyze the critical action needed to ensure long-term watershed security and advance resilience is through budgets, sustainable funding, and ongoing financial commitments. And this must be informed by critical learnings about implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) in the context of freshwater funding and projects. The Healthy Watersheds Initiative is offering insights on this through, for example, the new report United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People: Healthy Watersheds Initiative Evaluation Framework and Report by Tara Marsden, Naxginkw / Senior Indigenous Advisor.

Both the federal and B.C. provincial governments recently released their 2022 budgets, and analyzing them is an exercise in contrasts. While the federal budget falls significantly short of what the government promised, the B.C. budget does show a positive signal for fresh water and offers a useful starting place for creating a more water secure future.

Federal Budget 2022

More than two years ago, the current federal government made a commitment to establish a Canada Water Agency as one element to help Canadians respond to the realities of uncertainty and a rapidly changing future and its effect on water. The clear intention was for this government to be a more effective and collaborative partner and to work together with provinces, territories, indigenous and local governments, communities, scientists, and others to find the best ways to keep our water safe, clean, and well managed and to build security for our watersheds (and thus communities) across Canada.

More than 50 NGOs and academic organizations from across the county applauded—and have since heavily invested in supporting—this effort. However, despite the federal government getting the direction it needed, the current government is not delivering on the promises they boldly made. The recent federal budget came as a shock to many of the groups who applauded the commitments and promises. Currently it appears this federal government is not yet placing any urgency on freshwater issues: There is no meaningful Canada Water Agency, no real money, no direction, and certainly no leadership.

In response, the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW) wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau following the release of the Canadian 2022 Federal Budget. Co-signed by POLIS’ Oliver M. Brandes, who is also Chair of FLOW, the letter asks the Prime Minister to acknowledge that the climate crisis is a water crisis, and to properly address the water crisis with adequate resources, follow-through on commitments made, and the necessary urgency to make a difference.

As written in the open letter, Budget 2022 demonstrates the continued decline in funding and priority your government has given freshwater management. Following the devastating floods and wildfires in British Columbia, which cost Canadians and your government more than $5 billion and the devastating drought in Manitoba which cost $93 million to support farmers, Budget 2022 was an opportunity to be proactive in addressing the critical water challenges impacting Canadians. Instead, your government continues to demonstrate a lack of urgency in the threat of this crisis to Canadians.

B.C. Budget 2022

In British Columbia, on the other hand, this past year brought some major milestones for water and watershed security. In particular, in Budget 2022 the provincial government extended the early investment associated with the Healthy Watersheds Initiative. This new initiative will flow an additional $30 million to critical community capacity and watershed initiatives with clear attention to Indigenous leadership and capacity, and is in addition to the $27 million from 2021—for a total of $57 million in direct resources for watershed restoration and security over the last two years.

The provincial government also launched public engagement on the B.C. Watershed Security Strategy and Fund, which will set the stage for a long-term, integrated, and coherent approach to water, land, and watersheds including a clear focus on co-governance and building resilience. In response to this priority, the POLIS team developed a resource to support water champions, community leaders, other levels of government, and organizations in deepening their understanding of the issues and crafting their submissions. And, following this, in March POLIS submitted its own response, distilling and identifying key priorities for the provincial government. In particular, our submission included details on why watershed security matters; what an effective strategy must achieve; and priorities for the B.C. Watershed Security Strategy, including identifying some of the most important early successes and “no regrets” priorities, in addition to the much needed substantive and ongoing reforms.

Another indication of a building priority and momentum around the importance of water, watershed security, and better governance is the creation of the new B.C. Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship, which positions stewardship, planning, and water firmly in the provincial government’s broader agenda. The new ministry is explicitly tasked with a commitment to better planning, Indigenous co-governance and, ultimately, action. This includes developing the necessary legal and institutional tools to build resilience on the landscape and commitments to co-governance arrangements with Indigenous governments and leadership.

These are all areas where our POLIS team, and many of our partners, have done extensive work, including our Water Objectives Innovation Brief (April 2022), Towards Watershed Security: The role of water in modernized land use planning in B.C. (July 2020), and Water Sustainability Plans: Potential, Options, and Essential Content (October 2019).

Where from here…

More resilience and a better approach to watershed security will, at a minimum, require reconciliation between Crown and Indigenous governments built around shared decisions and authority. It will also require better capacity and predictive ability to understand the changes on the landscape and in the hydrology already underway. We certainly need better intergovernmental arrangements and coordination, better water monitoring to support effective adaptation, better designed infrastructure, and better freshwater management and governance to help navigate the turbulent waters ahead.

Early progress toward all these goals can be realized through actual money. Better coordination and collaboration across all levels of government is required, including the creation of a standalone independent and resourced Canada Water Agency, as is follow-through on promises already made both by the federal and B.C. governments.

At POLIS, our work will continue to prioritize water sustainability and watershed security. We will continue to push to ensure the necessary institutional, legal, policy, and governance changes are in place, while also tracking the promises made by governments and ensuring they yield real impacts on the ground—and in the water—for a more sustainable and resilient future.