LOCAL GOVERNMENT POLICY IMPACTS RIPPLE THROUGH TIME: “Read, ponder, and absorb. After that, learn some more. It is a process. You will then be primed to make informed policy choices that achieve the goal of Sustainable Service Delivery in your community,” stated Kim Stephens, Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC, in an essay written for new politicians

Note to Reader:

Waterbucket eNews celebrates the leadership of individuals and organizations who are guided by the Living Water Smart vision. The edition published on January 17, 2023 previewed an essay on water sustainability that the Partnership contributed to the Winter 2023 issue of the Asset Management BC Newsletter.

Get the water right and other parts of the community resiliency puzzle will fall into place

This edition launches another year of Waterbucket eNews, published by the Partnership for Water Sustainability on Tuesdays from January through June, and from September through November. Beginning with today’s feature article, we build on where we left off in November  2022. To start the year, our spotlight is on newly elected municipal councillors and regional district directors.

As the new folks learn the ropes of the Community Charter (or Local Government Act in the case of regional district electoral areas) and grow into their new responsibilities, we hope they will come to appreciate the insights that flow from our “stories behind the stories”. These are shared by those leading changes in thinking and implementing. Everyone learns from stories.

THE QUESTION: What would you tell newly elected local government representatives about Sustainable Service Delivery through asset management?

Four years ago, after the October 2018 local government election, the Fall 2018 issue of the Asset Management BC Newsletter featured a range of perspectives to inform the newly elected about Asset Management for Sustainable Service Delivery in British Columbia. They are doing the same again with the Winter 2023 issue of their newsletter.

Today’s edition of Waterbucket eNews is a preview of the Partnership’s contribution to the Asset Management BC Newsletter. Written by Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Partnership Executive Director, the essay is about water sustainability.

“Written in a conversational style, our approach with this essay is to engage rather than to lecture,” explains Kim Stephens. “We hope the use of clear language will help the Class of ’22 on their personal journeys of discovery as elected representatives. Moreover, we hope all our readers will learn something useful from the essay.”

EDITOR’S PERSPECTIVE: essay on Sustainable Service Delivery

My over-arching message to those who were elected to municipal councils and regional boards in October 2022 is succinct: “Get the water part right in a changing climate, and you will be amazed how other parts of the community resiliency puzzle then fall into place.”

A supporting message that drills down from this big picture view is expressed this way: “Our land ethic has consequences for water. This means elected representatives need to understand why development practices disconnect the water balance pathways that power stream-ecology. They also need to understand why a water-first approach to green infrastructure can reconnect the two.”

As an elected representative, are you now wondering what these two statements mean in practice, and how they relate to Sustainable Service Delivery?

With this introductory essay, my objective is simply to provide you with a conceptual framework, call it a mind map, that will help start you on your personal journey of discovery as an elected representative.

As you gain an appreciation of the ways in which policy decisions play out, please keep this thought in the forefront of your thinking, the decisions that councils and boards make today ripple through time, for better or worse.

If I now have your attention, let’s shine the spotlight on streams. Have you considered that a stream system is the most important natural asset within a local government’s domain of responsibility?

Would knowing this make you more likely to champion effective “green infrastructure” policies that preserve the integrity of stream systems and thus provide higher levels of drainage service?

Have you thought about how a stream corridor provides a “package of ecological services” where people live?

In clear language, the phrase “package of ecological services” refers to drainage, habitat and diversity, recreation, and enjoyment of property functions of a stream corridor. This is language that municipal councils and regional boards should understand.

Do the words resonate with you, as a responsible decision maker, and would they help you make informed policy choices?Streams are a major focus for community involvement. Consider how much work stewardship groups do to improve conditions in streams. We can all visualize what a stream looks like. In comparison, how intuitively obvious is the generic phrase “natural asset”?

Did you know that “the drainage service” has two interconnected components? 

The engineered and natural components of “the drainage service” are municipal infrastructure and streams, respectively. Declining stream health is a way to think about the consequences of past actions and/or inaction at a land development policy level, and the associated cost implications for maintenance and management of the drainage service.

Land use alters the landscape. That is obvious, right. But there is an elephant in the room. It is the unfunded liability due to neglect of the drainage service. The cost of neglect grows over time.

The consequence of neglect is an accumulating financial liability to fund creek channel stabilization and stream corridor revegetation in urban and rural settings.

The growing cost of neglect, combined with the urgency of the flood liability issue in particular, is the driver for linking municipal infrastructure asset management and stream health as “cause-and-effect”.

Weather extremes. Cold and hot. Floods, droughts, and fire. 

Warmer and wetter winters. Longer and drier summers. You have heard these descriptions time and again in recent years. A new vocabulary of extremes describes the new climate reality.

In the span of a generation, for example, my experience is that the expected duration of a summer drought has doubled from 3 months to 6 months, impacting on reliability of water supply as well as the survival of aquatic systems. And when it rains heavily, stream systems blow out due to flash runoff.

Do these challenges seem daunting? At the global scale, it feels like yes. At the local scale, perhaps not.

Are you aware, for example, of a regulatory tool called a “soil depth requirement” for runoff control?  

It is at the local creekshed scale where human actions on the land matter. Council and board decisions can ripple through time to make a difference, over time, to restore the water balance as land redevelops.

But elected representatives must first grasp this core concept: land use activities short-circuit natural water balance pathways and thus impact on levels of service for drainage. The flip side of a problem is an opportunity.

Consider, for example, that requiring a minimum soil depth on every property would restore the “absorbent sponge” after land is subdivided and houses are built. Because the soil sponge holds water and releases it slowly, it is a foundation piece for sustaining both streamflow and fish in urban and suburban streams.

Learn about, and learn from, communities such as the Town of Comox that are striving to “get it right” through design with nature servicing practices. They are beacons of hope and inspiration.

Does the foregoing make sense to you?

If what I have shared with you does make sense, then you are ready for the final piece in this essay which is the image included below. This presents the hierarchy of “green vocabulary” which cascades from policy to outcome.

The four terms can also be viewed as a set of guiding principles to achieve water sustainability and higher levels of drainage service by designing with nature. It is a systems view.

Read, ponder, and absorb. After that, learn some more. It is a process. You will then be primed to make informed policy choices that achieve the goal of Sustainable Service Delivery in your community.

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