This opinion piece was written by Kaitlyn McGlade, regional planning ecologist at the Ontario ministry of natural resources and forestry.
My story begins with water. It starts from when I was born; having spent my early years swimming, fishing and pouring salt on the leeches that only ever seemed to latch on to me at my families’ cottage in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario.
Over the years, water has always been there for me: providing a sense of calm when it all seemed like too much; washing away the days that felt more like years and bringing together friends and family to bask in all its glory. In many ways, water has led to me where I am today — pursuing a career in environmental conservation with the Ontario Public Service.
Unfortunately for many people around the globe, water does not provide the same fond memories. In many places, accessing freshwater is, or soon will be, a constant struggle.
For many people around the globe, water does not provide the same fond memories
As a result, water conservation and protection has been an increasingly important topic in political discussions at all levels of government. It’s curious though, that even while people on the world stage continue to think about the issue of freshwater, a quick google search reveals very little discussion on the key concept of watershed based management. The majority of articles that do appear are from my own country of Canada.
Now, given that approximately 11.5% of Canada’s landmass is freshwater, this might seem obvious. What isn’t so obvious though, is how integrating watershed management processes in Canada has led to improved conservation of freshwater, more efficient economic development and citizens who’ve learnt that systems-based science is essential if we are to protect conserve and restore freshwater resources.
What is watershed based management?
Like many other concepts in environmental science, what watershed based management is varies according to where you are, and when you’re thinking.
In my home province of Ontario, watershed based management is defined as the process of managing human activities and natural resources, community interests, economic, social and environmental issues to manage water resources sustainably.
There are clearly many means by which governments can manage human activities and natural resources. But one of the fundamental problems within environmental governance remains the fact that natural systems and processes do not conform to man-made political boundaries. A community downstream of a river may implement strict regulations to manage or protect freshwater resources, but this is all for nothing if upstream communities continue to degrade and exploit the resource.
Natural systems and processes do not conform to man-made political boundaries
This is where the concept of watershed management based planning comes in.
In Ontario, the 1946 Conservation Authorities Act (the Act) allowed local municipalities to come together and request the formulation of a Conservation Authority (CA). CAs are regulatory agencies, both publicly and privately funded, which undertake scientific research, promote environmental education and actively participate in land-use planning and development within their jurisdiction.
Just how are those jurisdictional boundaries defined, you ask? You guessed it — CA boundaries are defined on a watershed scale. Through their regulatory role defined by the Act, CAs can restrict land-use development if development is likely to impact water resources through pollution, cause flooding or erosion, or adversely affect wetlands.
Furthermore, science-based research programs within the organisation can evaluate the impacts of land-use changes over time. This allows for a science-based approach to planning and development which aims to balance social, economic and environmental factors with the long-term management and conservation of freshwater resources. It also decreases the burden on other levels of government, from municipal to federal, to implement policy and regulate development.
Learning to think long-term
This is not to say that the concept of dedicated regulatory agencies for watershed management is without issues. In Ontario, they are often perceived as an extra layers of “red tape” that prevents economic growth and prosperity.
Despite this, with threats to natural and man-made resources increasing around the world, it is estimated that for every dollar spent on water systems-based solutions, there’s a four dollar return on investment.
Upset because that multi-million dollar development proposed within the floodplain was just denied? Guess what? Siting that development somewhere more appropriate just saved twice that amount in recovery and remediation after that “once in a lifetime” storm.
“Status quo” approaches to environmental governance are no longer a viable option
I’m not attempting to argue that Canada, or any of its provinces, have found the answer. Applying any one approach in another context; political, geographical or otherwise, typically is not beneficial to anyone. The best way is to promote innovation in thought and recognition that “status quo” approaches to environmental governance are no longer a viable option for conserving what is arguably one of the world’s most valuable resources.
Systems-based science that regulates land-use development and planning is one option to address some of the pressures faced by freshwater resources. Ontario figured this out in 1946. Since then Ontario has improved the quality of its freshwater resources, saved countless dollars in flood damage and engaged its citizenry in meaningful conservation efforts.
Just as it began, my story ends with water. It concludes with a modern rendition of wise words by philosopher Loren Eiseley: If there’s magic on this planet, its in the water. — Kaitlyn McGlade
(Picture credit: Kaitlyn McGlade)