A Spotlight on Xwulqw’selu Connections

POLIS team contributing to watershed sustainability planning in the Xwulqw’selu watershed

Published On: October 3rd, 2023

Contributed by Jennifer Shepherd, Community Researcher, Xwulqw’selu Connections

Xwulqw’selu Connections is a research project based at the University of Victoria that is committed to community-connected science for a healthy Xwulqw’selu (Koksilah) watershed on Vancouver Island. As the name suggests, connections are at the heart of the project. Bringing together researchers and community members, the team connects groundwater and surface water; people from across the watershed; and water science with water governance. The project offers an example of academic and policy research meeting community action.

Rights holders, partners, and collaborators learn together at the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ (Koksilah River) on a Xwulqw’selu Connections field day. September 16, 2023. Photo: Tom Gleeson

POLIS’ Oliver Brandes serves as a trusted advisor to the research team and Rosie Simms has been part of the project’s gatherings and direction-setting through her role at POLIS and in providing planning support to Cowichan Tribes. Oliver and Rosie regularly participate in field gatherings with rights holders, partners, and other collaborators to offer input, learn together, and gain insight from field stories.

The Xwulqw’selu Connections project has three core goals:

  1. Improve understanding of current and future low flows in the Koksilah watershed through community engaged monitoring and participatory modelling.
  2. Encourage deeper community engagement with water science and watershed governance.
  3. Clarify the role and value of community science in improving water governance and shared management between Indigenous and settler governments.

Between 2021 and 2022, community monitoring volunteers made more than 1500 observations at nearly 80 sites throughout the Xwulqw’selu watershed.  That number continues to rise in 2023, as the number of monitoring volunteers has grown to 40 people. Volunteers record water temperature and specific conductivity and take site photos throughout the low-flow season. In addition to the data gathered in the community monitoring program, PhD Candidate Kristina Disney also takes streamflow measurements.

Oliver Brandes and Kristina Disney take measurements in the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ (Koksilah River). September 16, 2023. Photo: Tom Gleeson

Data is collected, stored, and shared using the First Nations principles of ownership, control, access, and possession (OCAP®). All data derived from the Xwulqw’selu Connections project is owned by Cowichan Tribes and openly shared to benefit the evolving co-governance structure between Cowichan Tribes and the provincial government.

As part of the project, PhD candidate David Serrano is developing a computer watershed model to simulate possible future outcomes and impacts in the watershed. The model draws on existing data on local climate, geology, soils, topography, land use, and water use to predict past and future low flows in the Koksilah River and other variables important to the community and decision-makers.

The model is designed as a useful tool for decision-makers, including those who sit at the Watershed Sustainability Planning table. It can test the impact of different planning and policy decisions on the flow and availability of water. Ultimately, the research team hopes to use this model to support decisions about what investments to make and what else can be done for the health of the watershed as a whole.

All the research being done through Xwulqw’selu Connections is woven together and guided by community researchers Ella Martindale and Jennifer Shepherd, project lead Tom Gleeson, as well as Cowichan Tribes, the Province of British Columbia, the Cowichan Watershed Board, the Koksilah Working Group of the Cowichan Station Area Association, and other collaborators.

The research team aims to inspire changemakers in B.C. and internationally and to explore potential applications of their methodology in other watersheds. If you would like to learn more or get involved, visit xwulqwselu.uvic.ca or contact Jennifer Shepherd, Community Researcher with Xwulqw’selu Connections, at [email protected] or (236) 800-9011.