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OPINION w/VIDEO: Salmon die and people lose their water as B.C. sleepwalks into yet another crisis

‘It’s time those responsible for protecting B.C.s environment spent a little more time out here with us’

By David Mills

Watershed Watch Salmon Society

On Tuesday, an emotional call came into our Chilliwack office, along with a video that was hard to watch. A small school of coho salmon struggled to push from one tiny pool of water to another in a futile effort to spawn. The cool, clean water they needed to survive and lay their eggs was nowhere to be found.

Scenes like this are playing out across B.C. as this record-setting drought kills salmon, trees and other flora and fauna en masse.

A recent municipal order on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast is forcing businesses to literally stop using water. Aside from reactions to fish kills from central coast First Nations representatives, it was the first major signal from government officials that something might be seriously wrong.

Like the heat dome, floods, and fires before, we’ve heard nothing from our elected leaders about what our response to this latest predictable environmental crisis ought to be. In a sadly familiar pattern, key provincial ministers responsible for environmental protection and public safety are missing in action. And action is what the person who contacted us about the now-deceased coho was looking for. Wild salmon and rivers are part of our culture here in British Columbia and watching them struggle is heartbreaking.

Tools that could help are available. B.C.’s water managers can use the Water Sustainability Act to issue ‘fish population protection’ or ‘critical environmental flow’ orders to restrict non-essential water uses, to get more water into our streams and rivers. However, tools only work if they are used, and these ones haven’t been. We’re now at drought level 5, where the law calls for “all efforts” to be made to conserve water. Regional water managers are working with licensees to reduce water use, but have not even come close to using the full suite of management tools at their disposal. After 100 days without rain, this lack of action seems bizarre.

We can’t place all the blame on the B.C. government. While they have overseen decades of clearcut logging that has destroyed fish habitat and is exacerbating the droughts and flooding, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has stood back and let it happen. Nearly two years into DFO’s $645 million, 5-year initiative dedicated to stopping declines in Pacific salmon, we have yet to see a single recovery plan for any of our dozens of endangered salmon runs.

Experts have warned citizens and our governments for decades that the risks and consequences posed by a changing climate will be severe, and that we must adapt. For sure, there are structural barriers to making the change we need, like three different B.C. ministries with overlapping jurisdictions for protecting fish from drought. But the real problem is deep and cultural. Our elected leaders and the top bureaucrats who manage our watersheds are not seized of the crisis unfolding in our backyards. They seem to be in denial that their job is to fix it.

One of the ways out of this mess is to bring back local control for First Nations and local governments to jointly manage their own watersheds and water resources. This approach is working well in the few places where there are local co-management bodies, like the Cowichan Watershed Board. But again, this requires provincial and federal support. The Watershed Security Fund promised by the B.C. government two years ago could kickstart local watershed management across the province, if only they would follow through.

Today, we can start using all the tools we have to resuscitate our failed efforts to protect B.C.’s environment. Tomorrow we can develop better ones that empower local people to manage their home waters. All of this will require fixing our gaze steadfastly on reality. Out on the smoggy streets we can feel the smoke burn our eyes. On the banks of drying rivers we’re watching our salmon die. Perhaps it’s time those responsible for protecting B.C.s environment spent a little more time out here with us.

David Mills is a wild salmon and watersheds campaigner with Watershed Watch Salmon Society.

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