NANAIMO — A group focused on watershed protection on Vancouver Island says too many people have no idea Nanaimo does not own and has no formal access agreement to the lands which supply the city with its drinking water.
Nanaimo's June Ross, chair of Vancouver Island Water Watch Coalition, is hoping to bring the issue out into the community once again and create further awareness of the more than decade-old efforts of the group.
"Nanaimo has a fair amount of water but the thing that disturbs me is: What is there to stop Island Timberlands or TimberWest (owners of the roughly 23,000 hectare watershed) from selling off pieces of that property...There's not even any written agreement between the City of Nanaimo and the two forestry companies that we have access into that watershed," Ross told NanaimoNewsNOW.
The latest step for the coalition involved a face-to-face meeting with Vancouver Island MLAs and ministers last week. Ross said they made little progress with the previous Liberal government and intend to "hold the NDP government's feet to the fire."
The coalition made several requests of the province, including a call for legislation giving local governance of drinking watersheds and changes to forestry acts ensuring future quality and quantity.
Ross said although the meeting with the politicians from all parties did not yield any promises, they listened, asked questions and gained a greater understanding of the challenges some communities are facing. The water coalition's next step is to bring the community up to speed on their work and ask for help with lobbying efforts.
The City of Nanaimo's Bill Sims, who oversees the community's water resources management, said it's a complex issue that has been discussed in many forms for a long time.
He said over his 20 years with Nanaimo, there has always been a positive relationship with the forestry companies which own the watershed. The companies appear to be "stepping up their game" in recent years, he said, making efforts to be more aware and engaged in community discussions and concerns.
Sims said the watershed land is protected by provincial legislation and can not be used for anything other than resource development.
He said while it would obviously be nice to have ownership of the land, there are many challenges associated with that prospect.
Beyond the exorbitant price tag, Sims said the ongoing cost of maintaining the land would be extremely prohibitive for a municipality, noting those costs are currently being shouldered entirely by the land owners.
"We've had a number of discussions over the years with the forestry companies about arranging some sort of a written access agreement, to make it clear both in the public's minds and for our own legacy. That is being worked on. Having said that, the City has the right under provincial legislation to access its water supply infrastructure. So we could in theory expropriate the access right to our infrastructure," Sims said.
Despite some legislated certainty and prohibitive costs, Sims said there's no doubt watershed security is a concern and long term protections are needed.
Nanaimo NDP MLA Leonard Krog, who attended last week's meeting with the water watch coalition, said while he isn't and can't make any promises, he is very willing to work towards appropriate regulation and protection of local drinking water sources.
"In a perfect world government would have ownership over the watershed but the cost of doing that...is simply astronomical," Krog said.
"We all support the forest industry on Vancouver Island. We want it to grow and prosper and develop. At the same time we need water to live."
On Twitter: @domabassi
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