Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC connnects water, land and people

Note to Reader:

In 2009, BC Hydro Power Smart recognized the need for collaboration among organizations and individuals within the province; and embarked upon an initiative known as the Conservation Community of Practice.

Commencing in 2010, BC Hydro has published a monthly newsletter to celebrate the accomplishments of the champions – these are the individuals and groups who are leading change on the ground, and making a significant difference.

The February 2012 newsletter featured the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC. To download a copy of an article written by Nina Winham, click on Conservation Community of Practice Newsletter – February 2012 Monthly UpdateHer interview with Kim Stephens, Partnership Executive Director, is reproduced below.

Connecting Water, Land…..and People

It falls freely from the sky. It runs across the land, soaks into any open crack. It even flows right through our bodies. Water connects communities to landscape, people to each other.

But in the development of communities, we’ve come to view water as a distinct resource management issue. Which is a problem, according to Kim Stephens. In his quest to improve water management and conservation, he’s learned that connecting people is key.

Convening for Action

“I’m a water guy, in terms of my professional training,” says Kim, a water resources engineer-planner and now the Executive Director of the Partnership for Water Sustainability in B.C. (PWS). “And you always see this tendency to silo the two: land and water. But it’s your land ethic that determines what happens in the condition of your water.”

Kim stephens (200p) - 2012Kim’s solution is to draw people together to collaborate – and get them out of the usual conversation frame. “We don’t talk only about water,” he says. “We challenge our audiences, ‘What do we want this place to look like in 50 years?’ Because the decisions we make now about land development will ripple through time. For example, if you strip off the soil, you’ll end up pouring a lot more water on your gardens. If your water requires energy to pump, that means using more energy.”

The PWS has successfully engaged communities in water-related initiatives on Vancouver Island, in Metro Vancouver, and in the South Okanagan. The group focuses on how to move people from awareness to action to achieve water sustainability through implementation of green infrastructure policies and practices. BC Hydro supported the group in 2011 with seed funding to extend its reach into the Thompson Rivers Region, recognizing that water conservation supports energy conservation progress as well.

Lessons Learned from Experience

Kim has learned from experience what works best to promote community conservation. First is credibility. The credibility of the individuals involved in PWS has helped it engage the attention of busy municipal staff, and becoming established as a stand-alone non-profit in 2010 has helped attract funding.

Next is drawing the right people into the discussion. “You have to create forums for the conversations that otherwise would not happen,” he says. “You can call a meeting and have people sit around the table, but if they’ve all got their official hats on, you don’t get very far. Creating a situation where you can have a candid conversation is important.”

Which leads to a third key point. “Municipal staff are often overworked, they find it hard to move forward on these issues,” says Kim. “Working with them to find ways to help them, to offer solutions, is how we try to operate.”

Regional Team Approach

Finally, the PWS focuses at a regional level to connect local developers, stewardship groups, and municipal staff, bringing disparate interests to a common table. “If you want to make change it requires collaboration of those within government, as well as those who are the community advocates. I had an epiphany when I realized that community folks can say things to politicians that staff can’t. Getting alignment with local government is key, because that’s where decisions that reflect the land ethic lie.”

The PWS has developed several tools, such as the Water Balance Model and the Water Bucket website, towards its goal of moving from theory into action. A new initiative is to develop a collaborative education initiative across the Cowichan, Capital, Nanaimo and Comox regional districts.

Which brings up a final tip from Kim: “It was total serendipity when my colleagues and I stumbled on this. Going back decades to when I was in university we talked all the time about having a regional approach. But it was when we inserted the word ‘team’ – as in, a regional team approach -– we experienced how it changes the dynamic and how everyone thinks.”

‘Designing with Nature’ in BC

The PWS is helping the Province implement the Living Water Smart and Green Communities initiatives. This is being accomplished through shared responsibility in delivering the Water Sustainability Action Plan.

Released in 2004, the Action Plan provides a partnership umbrella for on-the-ground initiatives that advance a design with nature way-of-thinking and acting. The phrase is borrowed from the title of a seminal book by the late Ian McHarg, internationally renowned landscape architect and writer on regional planning using natural systems.

The image identifies the objectives and desired outcomes that brand ‘designing with nature’.