Founded on an internationally-recognized co-governance model, the Cowichan Watershed Board provides leadership for sustainable water management and the ecological protection of the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) and Xwulqw’selu (Koksilah) watersheds.
The Cowichan Watershed Board was born out of crisis. After 45 years of successful operations, in 2003 the Cowichan Lake Weir was not able to store enough water to sustain the watershed during the summer drought. In fact, the weir has failed to do so 12 times in the last 21 years, 6 times over the past 9 years and 3 times in the past 4 years. “I see a trend here – Welcome to climate change,” says Tom Rutherford, Executive Director of the Cowichan Watershed Board. “20 years ago, we could see that the current weir would not be sufficient to protect the future of our salmon, our river and our community, but to be honest, I don’t think we realized how much worse it would get so quickly!” In response to this crisis, the Cowichan Basin Water Management Plan was developed, and the Cowichan Watershed Board was formed to implement the plan.
The Cowichan Watershed Board is a partnership between Cowichan Tribes First Nation and the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD). The Board is co-chaired by the Chief of Cowichan Tribes, and the Chair of the CVRD, who jointly appoint 10-12 other local leaders, as well as nominees from the federal and provincial governments. The model is a unique example of local empowerment, with members coming together to listen, learn, and work together for the good of the watershed.
“If we’re going to make progress on these big challenges, we’re going to have to do it together,” Rutherford explains. “It’s not enough for First Nations to be involved. They have to be leading.”
Co-governance is built into the foundation of the Cowichan Watershed Board. One of the organization’s core principles is expressed in hul’qumi’num as Nutsamat kws yaay’us tth qa’ – we come together as a whole to work together to be stronger as partners for the watershed.
The unique makeup of the Board has caught the attention of provincial and federal government officials, resulting in better traction for the Board’s priorities. “When they get the chief and the chair in their office saying, ‘We’re together on this’, it works,” says Rutherford. Working closely with its partners, the Cowichan Watershed Board has helped to attract millions of dollars in investment to the region.
In January 2022, a milestone was achieved. After almost two years of biweekly meetings between Cowichan Tribes and Provincial staff, an agreement was reached on moving forward with the provinces’ first Water Sustainability Plan for the Koksilah watershed. This will be precedent setting and provide a significant opportunity to innovate and reform watershed management, realize co-governance and express Quw’utsun laws and knowledge alongside the Water Sustainability Act. It will address current watershed concerns related to water availability, low flows, critical fish habitat, Indigenous cultural resources, and other challenging issues. The implications of this achievement, in terms of providing a template for sustainable water management in the face of climate change, cannot be overstated.
The Cowichan Watershed Board meets on the last Monday morning of every month, virtually for now, and meetings are open to the public. Visit their website at https://cowichanwatershedboard.ca/twinned-watershed/ to learn more about their priorities and activities, and how you can get involved in this important work.