Photo: Sarah Thomas of the Watershed Forest Alliance holds up Christmas cards that forum attendees were invited to send to Island Timberlands, the city and the regional district. — image credit: KATYA SLEPIAN/Alberni Valley News
“The time to act is now” was the message delivered by outgoing Shawnigan Lake director Bruce Fraser on protecting the Alberni Valley’s watershed.
Bruce delivered that message to a packed Search and Rescue Hall that included local residents, Island Timberlands representatives and city officials during a watershed forum organized by the Watershed-Forest Alliance and Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser.
Bruce Fraser said that the concerns he’s heard voiced in the Alberni Valley about watershed protection are similar to the worries people are having all around the province, as well as the issues he dealt with in Shawnigan Lake.
“Shawnigan is feeling that human footprint, everything from climate change to gravel beds,” said Bruce, comparing the situation there to the Alberni Valley’s, both in terms of industry encroaching on the watershed and the provincial government’s seeming lack of initiative in terms of dealing with any problems that may arise.
“Our senior governments have basically retreated from the fields in so many cases, leaving us with a damaged environment and too little control to do anything about it,” said Bruce, adding that public support was key to getting a say in watershed planning.
However, Bruce said that Port Alberni is in a better place to take action with its watershed than was Shawnigan Lake, which is an unincorporated electoral area with no municipal council.
“We had to create local civic infrastructure [in Shawnigan Lake] to try to gain some authority to be involved in watershed planning,” he said. “Here you already have a council and you are a municipality, you don’t have to reinvent that.”
Having the civic authority in place means that “city council will have to step up to continue to put pressure on the various interests” in the area, said Bruce.
The recently passed Water Sustainability Act will be key to gaining control of the watershed.
“It has a clause in it that enables local governments to become involved in some of the responsibilities for watershed planning.”
While the details aren’t yet hammered out and regulations won’t be written until 2015, Bruce said that this is the ideal time for Port Alberni to position itself to be a part of the dialogue.
“City council should be having a dialogue with government about their role under the Water Sustainability Act and they should do so as soon as possible.”
That’s the sort of action Scott Fraser is hoping for from Port Alberni’s new city council, some of whom were in attendance at the forum.
Scott said he was frustrated by the lack of action he’s seen from the province. He cited correspondence between Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Steve Thomson and environmental experts that stated that areas currently being logged in the China Creek watershed by Island Timberlands should not be logged as something that should have spurred the province into action, rather than being ignored.
“I need support from local government, from the regional district, from the city of Port Alberni,” Scott said, adding that on his own, he doesn’t have enough clout.
“We still have a chance to have some control over what happens in our region. The local government has that responsibility and I think we’re going to see this local government take that seriously.”
Until local governments pressure the provincial government into taking action, there’s not much that can be done.
“Private land is private land, you can do pretty much what you want with it,” said Scott.