7. Integrating Water, Land and Watersheds
There are many diverse pressures and challenges on water resources and watersheds in BC. In this section, we examine the full spectrum of water and watershed issues and explore the value of adopting an integrated approach to planning and management. The context for integrated planning includes the breadth of issues that were raised in sections 5 (water supply and demand) and 6 (protecting drinking water quality). In addition, integrated watershed planning considers issues related to watershed functions, ecosystem health, connections between land use and water, as well as water quality within lakes, rivers and streams.
The challenges and pressures associated with watershed health include population growth, community and economic development, and a wide variety of point and non-point sources of pollution. It is also becoming increasingly important to consider the impacts of climate change when developing planning processes, implementing those plans and making water management decisions.
As noted in section 6, healthy watersheds, riparian areas, wetlands, floodplains and natural land covers such as forests provide important habitat for fish and wildlife, help to filter and process pollutants, slow water down, reducing stormwater runoff and flooding while allowing for the deposition of suspended sediments. When the natural functioning of a watershed is compromised by human activities, integrated approaches to water and watershed planning can be helpful, and may well be necessary.
The responsibilities for protecting watershed health and the interconnections between water quantity and quality are widely distributed among federal, provincial, First Nations, and local governments, and other organizations. In many BC communities, the challenge of navigating highly complex water and land use issues is pointing to the need for an integrated and collaborative approach to watershed planning and governance. Integrated planning involves a broad-based analysis of local and regional water quantity, water quality and other watershed issues, as well as the interconnections between these issues.
Types of Integrated Water and Watershed Planning
The following planning processes encourage more integrated and holistic approaches and can help to address a variety of water supply, demand, and quality issues, and include:
- Water Management Plans (Water Act, Part 4)
- Watershed Management Plans
- Stormwater (Rainwater) Management Plans
Why Undertake Integrated Planning for Water, Land and Watersheds
BC communities are undertaking integrated watershed planning and are adopting a wide range of strategies to manage a multitude of current and future challenges, pressures and changes in watersheds. Many of these pressures may be effectively addressed within plans that recognize the interconnections within a watershed system, including:
- surface water and groundwater connections;
- water quantity and quality connections;
- land and water connections; and
- community and watershed connections.
Watershed planning can help BC communities understand and address these challenges by improving knowledge about the current and future threats to water quantity and quality for human and environmental uses, and threats to overall watershed health and community sustainability.
The desired outcomes of integrated planning for water, land and watersheds may include:
- managing water uses and rates of consumption within available water supplies seasonally, annually and over the long term;
- developing and managing water supplies in ways that do not compromise the health and biodiversity of fish, wildlife, ecosystems and watersheds;
- managing the allocation of water in ways that support a variety of high-value water uses, including human consumptive and non-consumptive uses as well as instream environmental uses;
- ensuring a safe, secure supply of water for a wide variety of uses;
- managing wastewater discharges within the capacity of receiving waters to absorb and assimilate those wastes;
- managing land development and resource management practices (and day to day human activities) in ways that do not adversely impact water quality;
- managing human development patterns in ways that stabilize rather than destabilize the hydrologic cycle;
- managing human development patterns in ways that reduce rather than increase the vulnerability of communities to water-related hazards, such as flooding and erosion; and,
- maintaining and strengthening community resiliency by preparing for climate change and its impacts on water and aquatic ecosystems.
Challenges and Pressures
Integrated water and watershed planning is important in communities, particularly where there are multiple threats to, or pressures on, the quantity and/or quality of community water supplies, where infrastructure capacity is limited in relation to those threats, and where the health of aquatic ecosystems is threatened by multiple pressures on water quality or quantity. Depending on the community or region of the province, and on land and resource uses, climate change impacts and planning can influence these issues in a variety of ways. The following are a few examples of the challenges experienced in communities across BC where integrated approaches to planning may beneficial or necessary.
Growing Demands on Limited Water Supplies
A variety of land and water uses can impact water supply and demand, stream hydrology, groundwater tables, surface and groundwater quality, and the overall health of watersheds. For example, in the Township of Langley, multiple community wells and private wells withdraw water from the same aquifer. Managing demand within the available supply requires an integrated approach to understand the complexity of the challenges associated with water use and groundwater recharge, particularly in relation to population growth, economic development and climate change impacts.
Changes in Land Use and Land Cover
In many communities across BC, changes in land cover due to activities such as forestry, and increased imperviousness as a result of urban development can result in more “flashy” stream and river hydrology and increased rates of erosion and sediment transport. For example, in watersheds with reduced forest cover or increased impervious surfaces, a greater proportion of rainfall quickly enters storm sewers, drainage ditches and streams, resulting in high peak flows and less groundwater infiltration. In the Central Interior of BC, the mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreak has resulted in many dead, standing trees, significant salvage logging, and forest fires, all of which have dramatically impacted hydrology, erosion and sedimentation, aquatic habitat, and overall watershed health. Many see the MPB outbreak as being caused or exacerbated by climate change because average winter temperatures have warmed. Historically, cold winters have kept mountain pine beetle populations in check in BC, thereby preventing a significant outbreak. Over the long term, forest cover may return to more natural conditions and watershed health may recover; however, in the interim, communities may need to manage the impacts associated with these pressures. In the case of urban development, human intervention may be required to restore watershed health. With respect to the effects of BC’s MPB infestation on hydrology note the 2008 Ministry of Environment report: Mountain Pine Beetle Infestation: Hydrological Impacts.
Climate change is impacting, and will continue to impact, many aspects of water, land and watersheds in BC. Some of the most significant impacts on watersheds expected from climate change include reduced annual and/or seasonal precipitation, reduced snowpack, loss of glaciers, changing surface and groundwater hydrology, increased frequency and severity of drought and flood events, low summer flows, warm freshwater temperatures, reduced dilution / assimilative capacity of receiving waters, and increased erosion, turbidity and sedimentation. These and other climate-related impacts should be addressed in plans that aim to consider medium to long-term pressures on water quantity, quality, and ecosystem health. The plans should develop solutions for dealing with those pressures. See sections 3 and 9 of this guide for information, tools and resources about climate change impacts on water, related community vulnerabilities and risks, as well as considerations about how climate impacts can be managed through adaptation and water and watershed planning.
The need for a watershed approach is made even more evident when compounded by current and expected impacts of climate change. For example, the Okanagan, Thompson and Cariboo-Chilcotin regions can expect hotter, drier summers; extended growing seasons with the potential for new crop production; and increased demand for irrigation and livestock watering. Because this will occur when stream flows are at their lowest and when fish are particularly vulnerable, this may lead to increased levels of conflict among water users.
Because all three planning processes profiled in this section (water management, watershed management and stormwater management) may consider existing and future watershed processes and functions, they provide opportunities to consider climate change and its impacts, as well as other pressures, on watershed health. It should be noted that although this guide focuses on planning and climate change adaptation for water and watersheds, climate change impacts will undoubtedly have a variety of other impacts on terrestrial ecosystems such as forests, grasslands and alpine ecosystems. These impacts on the landscape will, in turn, influence the health of watersheds. However, these land-based climate impacts are beyond the scope of this guide.
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INTERGRATING WATER, LAND AND WATERSHEDS