Erik Karlsen and the Streamside Protection Regulation


Note to Reader:

Waterbucket eNews celebrates the leadership of individuals and organizations who are guided by the Living Water Smart vision. Storylines accommodate a range of reader attention spans. Read the headline and move on, or take the time to delve deeper – it is your choice!  Downloadable versions are available at Living Water Smart in British Columbia: The Series.

The edition published on May 2nd 2023 featured the late Erik Karlsen (1945-2020) and highlighted his contributions to streamside protection in British Columbia. Erik Karlsen developed a matrix that integrated the work of Ian McHarg, Daniel Pauly, Richard Horner and Chris May to provide local governments with a decision tool for riparian area protection.

Erik Karlsen and the Streamside Protection Regulation

In this edition, we honour Erik Karlsen, a one-of-a-kind public servant. He was a thought leader and his  impact on the  world of local government was profound. His influence ripples through time.

The Georgia Basin Initiative, regional growth strategies, and streamside protection regulation did not result from spontaneous combustion.

Erik Karlsen was the catalyst, the instigator, the leader.

Erik Karlsen was a master at communicating concepts. His genius is illustrated in the creative way he integrated the learnings from four renowned thought leaders, namely: Ian McHarg, Daniel Pauly, Richard Horner and Chris May.

Erik Karlsen integrated three foundational concepts to create a decision tool

In 1969, the legendary Ian McHarg published his seminal book, Design With Nature. He was one of the most influential environmental planners and landscape architects of the 20th century. With release of the Water Sustainability Action Plan fof British  Columbia in 2004, a ‘design with nature’ philosophy was embedded in the branding for green infrastructure, rainwater management and water sustainability in BC.

In 1995, UBC’s Daniel Pauly wrote a short but impactful article titled the Shifting Baseline Syndrome. This concept is a driver for intergenerational collaboration. Environmental baselines shift when successive generations of planners, engineers, and decision-makers do not have an image in their minds of the recent past. Pauly described how a lack of understanding plays out as a ‘failure to notice change’.

In 1996, the University of Washington’s Richard Horner and Chris May published seminal research that correlated land use changes with the impacts on stream condition. They identified and ranked four limiting factors in order of consequence from an ecological perspective. This ranking is the Road Map for Protecting Stream System Integrity.


“We can bend the curve upwards,” Erik Karlsen would state with conviction

In 2015, Erik Karlsen created the “Design With Nature Integrating Matrix” to help local governments operationalize the learnings from Ian McHarg, Daniel Pauly, Richard Horner and Chris May.

An inter-generational outcome

Erik Karlsen hoped that local governments would apply the understanding embedded in the matrix to “bend the curve” upwards. He believed that restoring a desired watershed and stream condition is an inter-generational responsibility and obligation.

“Communities and successive generations of their elected representatives and staffs must commit and recommit to restoring functional watersheds and streams. When they do, we will be successful in achieving this inter-generational outcome,” Erik Karlsen would say again and again.

Fast forward to the present

The “integrating matrix” is a foundation piece for EAP, the Ecological Accounting Process, which is a pillar for asset management that protects and restores riparian area integrity.





“Erik Karlsen and I met in October 1997 at a UBCM consultation workshop when he was the Director of Regional Growth Strategies with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. Erik was the provincial lead for the inter-ministry working group that developed the Streamside Protection Regulation which operationalized the Fish Protection Act,” stated Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Partnership Executive Director.

“Erik retired early from government, in 2002. For the balance of his life, he was the Partnership’s eminence grise and my mentor. His last contribution before his health declined was the integrating matrix (above). It is a significant piece of work and is an element of Erik Karlsen’s legacy as a thought leader in BC.”

An example of what the Shifting Baseline looks like

“A stream in a natural condition is supported by a riparian ecosystem.  In urban, suburban and rural settings around BC, however, riparian ecosystems have been reduced to riparian zones.”

“A riparian zone is a fragmented portion of the riparian ecosystem in developed areas. Diminution due to fragmentation results in a loss of a riparian network’s ecological services.”

“This has become the norm because the intent of the Riparian Areas Protection Regulation has been compromised over time. This loss is what Daniel Pauly describes as a ‘failure to notice change’.”

“The 2014 investigation and Striking a Balance report by the BC Ombudsperson identified ‘significant gaps between the process the provincial government had established when the Riparian Areas Protection Regulation was enacted and the level of oversight that was actually in place’.”

“Investigative Update: Striking a Balance (2022) states that ‘many of the issues we identified remain as pressing as they were in 2014; there is work ahead to ensure that the systemic issues are fully addressed‘.”

Erik Karlsen was concerned about the Ombudsperson’s findings. With development of EAP, the Ecological Accounting Process, the Partnership honours Erik’s memory and legacy by providing local governments with a path forward to tackle the Riparian Deficit.


STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Erik Karlsen and the Streamside Protection Regulation

“Wow. What a vibrant and connected person Erik Karlsen was,” recalls Peter Law. He served with Erik Karlsen on the inter-ministry committee that developed provincial regulations for streamside protection.

Formerly a Senior Biologist in the Vancouver Island Region of the Ministry of Environment, Peter Law is a founding Director of the Partnership for Water Sustainability and Past-President of the Mid Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society.

As well as serving on the Streamside Protection Committee, Peter Law chaired the inter-governmental committee responsible for development of Stormwater Planning: A Guidebook for British Columbia. The Guidebook flowed from Peter and Erik’s collaboration on streamside protection.

“Erik Karlsen bridged two provincial ministries,” continues Peter Law. “He started with the Ministry of Environment in the former Environment and Land Use Secretariat back in the early 1970s. He then switched to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. In 2005, he was appointed Chair of the Agricultural Land Commission. So, his hands were all over BC land use decisions for a long time.”

The Streamside Protection Committee was honoured with a Premier’s Award of Excellence in 2001

Erik Karlsen developed the language for riparian area protection

“Erik played the central role in bringing the attention to streamside protection that it deserved politically. He did that by drafting the wording of Section 12 (riparian protection) in the Fish Protection Act of 1997,” explains Peter Law.

“His participation in resolving provincial land use conflicts, with a growing chorus of environmental conservation (in the 1970’s and 1980’s), gave him unique insight into the important role an informed local citizenry and their local governments can play in implementing effective conservation strategies (on the private land base) to protect salmon.”

“Erik was delegated the role of being the lead in developing the wording of an Order in Council to enact Section 12.  It was a unique position, as this legislation was a Ministry of Environment initiative, led by Erik, who was the Director of Regional Growth Strategies in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.”

“Salmon management was a big deal in the late 1990’s, as Coho and Chinook populations were under threat from habitat loss. Federal agencies were wanting Provincial leadership on the issue of habitat protection, especially riparian areas adjacent fish bearing streams.”

“Over a period of two years, Erik Karlsen chaired a ‘colourful’ committee of experts in a process that focused on the science, the policies, the costs, the benefits (the good, the bad and ugly) with a goal of gaining consensus from all sectors.”

“During this time, Erik took great care in keeping all ‘interested parties’ up to speed with the direction of the work, to ensure that politicians, at all levels, were aware of how things were taking shape.  This was an enormous task, and he was ‘on the road’ meeting with local government Councils and staff (from Kamloops to Courtenay), in open Council sessions, with packed chambers full of local citizens – from stream stewards to loggers.”

“Erik always impressed upon me a quotation from Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac: The real substance of conservation lies not in the physical projects of government, but in the mental processes of citizens“, concludes Peter Law.


Quotable quotes from five thought readers provide context for riparian area protection and Erik Karlsen’s “integrating matrix”

Ian McHarg is described as the most influential landscape architect of the twentieth century. He is recognized as “the father of GIS”. His Design With Nature vision, more manifesto than scholarly text, has for two decades influenced implementation of BC’s Water Sustainability Action Plan.

Every generation is handed a world that has been shaped by their predecessors – and then seemingly forgets that fact. Legendary UBC fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined this as the shifting baseline syndrome. It happens in any realm of society where a baseline creeps imperceptibly over generations.

In the 1990s, Richard Horner led an urban water resources research centre at the University of Washington. Eight key questions defined areas of research for a team of graduate students led by Chris May. He then synthesized the findings in his PhD dissertation.

Prior to retirement, Chris May held a leadership position in Washington State local government – first with the City of Seattle and then with Kitsap County – for two decades. Kitsap was his “living laboratory”. As Director of the Surface & Stormwater Division, Chis May could put science into practice.

The EAP methodology and metrics represent the destination for a three-decade journey by Tim Pringle, EAP Chair. His mantra is that use and conservation of land are equal values. The principle that we manage what we measure guides his approach to applied research.


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About the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC

Technical knowledge alone is not enough to resolve water challenges facing BC. Making things happen in the real world requires an appreciation and understanding of human behaviour, combined with a knowledge of how decisions are made. It takes a career to figure this out.

The Partnership has a primary goal, to build bridges of understanding and pass the baton from the past to the present and future. To achieve the goal, the Partnership is growing a network in the local government setting. This network embraces collaborative leadership and inter-generational collaboration.