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VIEW: Citizens call for local control over water this election

[Editor's note: The Tyee received this unsolicited opinion piece from Sheila Muxlow of The WaterWealth Project, and Parker Jefferson of One Cowichan, and we offer it to you for your consideration. During the election season, we're posting various perspectives on The Tyee's Election Hook, labelled clearly as "VIEW."]

Water issues are making a splash this election. Communities of the Cowichan and Fraser Valleys are standing up for the health of our rivers, lakes and groundwater. Thousands of local residents have signed vote pledges in both regions to send a clear message to our political candidates: "Local communities should be at the heart of decisions that affect our water wealth."

We depend on water not just for drinking, but also as a way of life. Swimming, kayaking, fishing and beach time are all synonymous with what it means to be British Columbian. Water is also fundamental to our largest employment sectors, from tourism, to commercial and sports fishing, to farming and local food production, and many other industries that require water to process their products.

Surprisingly, the importance of fresh water to both our economy and healthy communities has been overlooked by our politicians. Perhaps they assume we have lots of water so we don't need to worry. Maybe this explains why our major water law, the BC Water Act, is over 100 years old. While the Act has been under review the past few years, no action has yet been taken to bring it up to date.

Meanwhile, as the classic Bob Dylan song goes, "Times, they are a-changin'." Pipeline spills, chemical leaks from fracking, shortages from unmanaged withdrawals, and contaminated runoff are the new reality facing many regions of B.C.

Our own community experiences in the Cowichan and Fraser Valleys are illustrative of the need for the new government to catch-up and start taking the concerns of local communities more seriously.

Last fall, the Cowichan Valley suffered a crisis that saw the Cowichan River almost run dry due to provincial mismanagement. Following early summer rainfall, a delegation from the Cowichan Watershed Board, including local mayors and Cowichan Tribes, pleaded with the province to store more water for the dry times ahead. The province refused. Water was dumped into the river mid-summer when it wasn't needed. When the drought arrived, 1,000 chinook salmon were lost. The Catalyst mill came within days of shutting down. The food fishery for the Cowichan Tribes stopped. Had the advice of the local Water Board been heeded, crisis would have been averted.

The frustration felt by the local community led to the formation of the One Cowichan citizens group, which is now calling for a shift in power from bureaucrats in Victoria to the Watershed Board, a local democratic body that is directly accountable to the communities affected by its decisions.

The Fraser Valley is teaming with life and includes majestic lakes like Harrison, Cultus, Chilliwack, and Stave. The Fraser River is the most productive salmon river on earth. The richness of these waters supports sports fishing, tourism, and adventure businesses, as well as B.C.'s most productive food growing region. It is also the lifeblood of First Nations economic and cultural well-being.

Recently, residents of the Fraser Valley have been inundated with new threats to their water wealth -- the expansion of the Kinder Morgan bitumen pipeline, a plan to open up mountainsides to gravel mining, private hydropower diversions staked for every stream, and contamination from industrial agriculture and urban sprawl. The fear of the cumulative impacts of these multiple threats has brought citizens together to call for a long-term water sustainability plan for their region and a right to say "yes" or "no" to the decisions that affect them.

The groundswell of concerns in the Cowichan and Fraser Valleys has seen thousands of local residents commit to vote for the political candidates that will do the most to protect our water wealth. Our communities are tired of hearing about decisions after they've been made, and are calling for local democratic control over decisions that affect our home waters.

Water has become a defining election issue in other regions of the province too, including run-of-the-river diversions on the Upper Lillooet River near Pemberton, the impacts on groundwater of the Ajax Mine in Kamloops, as well as fracking and the proposed Site C mega-dam in the Peace River region. Water, water is indeed everywhere. It is also uniting force. It connects us all and brings our communities together. This election is seeing the awakening of a broad and powerful citizens' water movement. Our politicians would do well to see which way the water's flowing.

Sheila Muxlow is campaign director of The WaterWealth Project, a community-driven initiative in the Fraser Valley. Parker Jefferson is spokesman for One Cowichan, a citizens group in the Cowichan Valley.

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