Fraser Basin Council


8.1 Rethinking Watersheds and Planning


“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”
- JOHN MUIR, naturalist, conservationist

Historically, the traditional approach to water management has been fragmented, not integrated to reflect the connections within a watershed. Water quality and water quantity have been managed separately, and decision making around water resources has been governed more by political boundaries than by natural ones. More recently, however, watersheds have received renewed attention as an important unit for planning, and there is wide acceptance that the management and planning of water should occur at a watershed level. For example, at a national level, Canada’s Federal Water Policy adopts watersheds as the preferred spatial unit for water resource planning.1

An integrated approach to watershed planning considers the interactions between the biophysical, constructed and human landscapes within a watershed (Figure 4). An integrated approach recognizes the interdependencies in both natural and human systems, as detailed in the table below.2

Integration in the Natural System
  • Between surface water and groundwater
  • Between water quantity and quality
  • Between upstream and downstream
  • Between freshwater and coastal waters
Integration in the Human System
  • Mainstreaming water in the national economy
  • Ensuring coordination between sectors
  • Ensuring partnership between public and private sector management
  • Involving everybody

Integrated watershed planning provides a means for coordinating decisions among government and private agencies in order to resolve land use and resource management conflicts and issues. The resolution of these issues is typically done through multi-stakeholder collaborative planning; through monitoring, research and consultation; by negotiating consensus; and by ensuring accountability through open communication, education and public access to information. Integrated watershed planning combines scientific and technical information with cultural and social values to resolve conflicts and identify a desirable future outcome.

Figure 4 – Components of Integrated Water and Watershed Management

Integrated watershed management is also referred to in some regions as ecosystem-based management. By this approach, “instead of managing a watershed as an adjunct to the water supply, maintaining healthy watersheds is considered a prerequisite to water management; water allocations are constrained by the larger need to ensure that the natural processes are maintained”.1 More recently, the terms “water centric planning”, “design with nature”, and the “soft path” approach have been used in BC to discuss and promote the concepts embedded in integrated watershed management. Water centric planning is described next.

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8.1.1 Water Centric Planning

Water centric planning refers to planning with a view to water, on any scale. The underpinning premise of water centric planning is that resource use, land use and community design will be done with an eye towards their potential impact on a watershed. This approach puts water stewardship and sustainability at the centre of land use, development, or resource planning initiatives. Water centric decisions consider the amount of water available, the amount of water needed, the use of innovative efficiency strategies, the quality of water leaving an area, how rain and snow water are managed, and the impact of development on the natural environment. As such, it requires that missions, mandates and accountabilities of participating agencies be ultimately integrated.3

Water centric planning is founded upon an earlier concept used in BC— the watershed landscape-based approach to planning. Water centric planning can be used at the watershed, sub-watershed, or site level. Its objectives include:

  • protection of people and property from natural hazards;
  • preservation and conservation of self-sustaining ecosystems;
  • continuation and growth of resource-based economic activity; and
  • provision of an affordable, sustainable and maintainable infrastructure.

Many policies and tools are available to local governments to implement water centric planning, including:4

  • Regional conservation strategies that identify land and water to be protected;
  • Official Community Plans that include development permit areas around all types of watercourses and associated habitats;
  • Liquid Waste Management Plans that have an increased emphasis on non-point source pollution and water;
  • Zoning bylaws that promote high-density developments;
  • Regional Growth Strategies;
  • Regulatory bylaws, such as watercourse protection bylaws and subdivision bylaws;
  • Watershed and Well (Aquifer) Protection Plans;
  • Tax incentives for land conservation, brownfield development, infill and low-impact development;
  • Infrastructure funding directed to designated growth areas; and,
  • Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System.

FBC_Pic7SMALL.jpgThe water centric approach also builds on lessons learned from past and recent practices related to integrative planning and implementation of planning decisions. It operates within the context of existing regional and municipal strategies, such as Regional Growth Strategies and Official Community Plans. It can also involve inter-municipal cooperation where watershed boundaries cross local government boundaries.3

The South Okanagan Regional District’s Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) was used as a pilot for water centric action in BC. The policy clearly recognizes the relationship between land and water, both in terms of water use and water runoff. A toolkit was developed to accompany the RGS and to guide decision making on the ground in terms of how land will be developed and water will be used, and to assist with benchmarking, monitoring and measuring key objectives within the policy.5

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8.1.2 Design with Nature

“Design with nature” is not a new concept. Originally coined by landscape architect Ian McHarg in 1969, design with nature is founded on the principle that the human and natural worlds are inextricably linked. It maintains that planning and design of the land for human use needs to be based on an understanding of natural process. Erik Karlsen, (formerly with the BC Ministry of Municipal Affairs) suggests that the key message of design with nature is that “the tool is a means to an end…. The vision is to change the way we develop land…it is about a different way of thinking.” 6

The design with nature paradigm captures the essence of climate change adaptation.7 It seeks to:

  • develop compact, complete communities;
  • increase transportation options;
  • reduce the loads on water, waste and energy systems;
  • protect and restore urban green space;
  • strive for a lighter “hydrologic footprint”; and
  • achieve higher levels of stream protection.

It has been suggested that designing with nature is a more “user-friendly”, intuitive approach to implementing Smart Growth principles.

“Adaptation is about responding to the changes that will inevitably occur. Adaptation is at the community level and is therefore about collaboration. If we can show how to get the water part right, then other parts are more likely to follow.” - LYNN KRIWOKEN, Director of the Water Stewardship Division of the BC Ministry of Environment 7

The Water Balance Model is emerging as an important decision support and scenario-modeling tool to assist local governments in BC in making “design with nature” land development decisions.7 The Water Balance Model is a web-based evaluation tool that helps local governments and developers assess how well rainfall is being captured on a site and returned to the ground rather than being allowed to leave the site as stormwater. The model can compare a number of site or watershed conditions, and it allows users to consider future climate scenarios of precipitation and evapotranspiration during decision-making. As of January 2011, six local governments on Vancouver Island have signed on as partners of the Water Balance Model (City of Comox, City of Courtenay, Cowichan Valley Regional District, District of Highlands, District of Metchosin, and District of Central Saanich). In the Fraser Valley, the District of Mission, City of Abbotsford, and City of Chilliwack are all members of the Water Balance Model community.

Rain gardens are one example of a tool being used by BC municipalities that is based on design with nature principles. Rain gardens are being used on both private and public lands to retain rainwater on-site – allowing it to soak into the ground – rather than running quickly into storm drains, ditches and streams.

In an effort to protect the health of Osoyoos Lake, the town of Osoyoos has incorporated design with nature principles into a bylaw that requires all rainwater to be captured on-site, thereby eliminating the need for stormwater sewer outfalls.8

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8.1.3 The “Soft Path” Approach

The “soft path” for water, developed by the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, is a holistic approach to water management that seeks to move beyond demand management to planning for sustainability. Rather than the conventional approach to water management (supply-focused planning), which treats water as an end product, the soft-path views water as a means to accomplish certain tasks. In this way, planners are able to explore innovative solutions to manage demand rather than just delivering more water to satisfy demand. The soft path approach begins with envisioning a desired future state for water resources that reflects human needs and ecological limits. From there, planners determine what water might be available in the future, and then work backwards in time to find feasible paths to meet long-term social and economic needs.9 The soft path promotes using alternative and more ecologically sustainable water sources, including rainwater harvesting and water reuse and recycling.

Soft path planning looks 20–50 years into the future and proposes major changes in water infrastructure and institutions. It focuses on developing and implementing policies and strategies now to reduce or possibly eliminate the need for water supply-side developments in the future. The soft path strives for efficiency in water use but goes beyond most demand management programs by challenging patterns of water consumption, asking, “why use water to do this in the first place?” For example, while a water demand management policy would introduce more efficient sprinklers with automatic shutoffs and watering restrictions, the soft path approach would advocate recycling water from bathtubs and washing machines for watering lawns and gardens in summer months, and introducing drought tolerant plants to gardens. In this way, by focusing on “why”, the soft path helps us explore a broader range of possible solutions.

The following are core principles of the soft path approach:

  • Treat water as a service rather than an end in itself. Consider alternative ways to deliver services that commonly use water, such as air-based cooling, rain-fed agriculture, waterless sanitation and low-flow fixtures in order to maximize water productivity.
  • Make ecological sustainability a fundamental criterion. Recognize ecosystems as legitimate users of freshwater; work within local eco-hydrological limits by setting limits for water withdrawals and standards for water that is returned to nature.
  • Match the quality of water delivered to that needed by the end use. Design policies to match the quality of water supplied to the quality required by cascading or tiered water systems, ensuring that wastewater from one use becomes input for another use (e.g. wastewater from a washing machine becomes water for use in the garden).
  • Plan from the future back to the present. Use the technique of “back casting” to define a sustainable future scenario, then work backwards to identify policies and programs that will connect the future to the present. This requires open, democratic and participatory planning that engages the whole community.10

A “real world” application of the soft path concept has been written up in A New Path to Water Sustainability for the Town of Oliver BC: a Soft Path for Water Case Study (2007). The report provides an overview of the soft path approach, analysis of three potential scenarios in the Okanagan, and recommendations for the town of Oliver to take steps towards developing a sustainable approach to water management. Soft path strategies have also been developed for Saltspring Island (2010) and the City of Abbotsford and District of Mission (2009) by the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance.

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8.1.4 First Nations’ Approaches to Planning and Decision Making

“In our language there are no words for “environment” because we have always been taught that this is part of our everyday living. Our everyday teachings from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents show us how to look after the foods that we depend on and that are part of the environment, and that’s also part of spirituality.”11 - RUBY DUNSTAN, a Nlaka’pamux Elder

The lives of indigenous peoples are intricately connected with the land and water that nourishes them. Living in close proximity to the land, they rely heavily upon it, and feel the effects of water depletion, pollution, or other changes. The traditional economy of First Nations is very closely linked to water. Traditional foods, which sustain First Nations’ communities, require pure water. When “waters are endangered, the very identity and survival of indigenous peoples is endangered”. 12

Respect for water, as for all living things, is central in First Nations’ social customs, values, spiritual beliefs and subsistence practices. The sacredness of water is reflected in traditional ceremonies and stories. First Nations understand that everything in nature is connected, and each part relates to the larger whole. Indigenous laws and traditions teach about the spiritual, physical and emotional connections between people and other living things. First Nations appreciate the inherent value of water as a force in itself. This understanding, embedded in a land ethic passed down through both language and action, infuses indigenous laws with respect for other life forms that share the same ecosystems as humans.12

For First Nations, the land ethic is a foundational principle that informs and guides all decision-making processes. It requires that decisions cannot be made separate from context, but rather must consider how all life on the land will be affected by those decisions.12 From the perspective of some First Nations, resource management in Canada is largely human-centred and based on the assumption that water, land and resources exist to serve human needs and aspirations. In order to integrate First Nations’ perspectives, it has been suggested that management needs to move away from the belief that “the natural world can be brought under control and that any damage caused by human activities can be contained and addressed through evolving technologies.”12 If First Nations’ values are to be truly reflected in management, and if the health of indigenous cultures is to be sustained, the collective view of water and our relationship with it needs to shift. Ardith Walkem, a lawyer and a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation in the interior of BC, writes:

“It is not better and improved water management that is needed but, rather, a real and lasting commitment to managing our own actions in a way that respects all life forms that share the water and depend upon it for survival”.

Integral to such a shift in decision making are four key principles or attitudes that characterize, in part, First Nations’ approaches to planning and decision making:12

  1. Planning for many generations into the future (Seventh Generation Principle)
    Indigenous decision-making recognizes the role of youth and elders, and looks far into the future. Decisions are measured according to the impact they will have seven generations into the future, and they incorporate a sense of shared responsibility (and stewardship) to pass on the same abundance that is available to this generation.

  2. Recognizing that all living things are connected (kincentric ecology)
    Kincentric ecology is defined as awareness that life in any environment is viable only when humans view the life surrounding them as kin”.12 The perspective of some First Nations is that when waters, forests and fish are viewed as our relatives, a completely different course of action is called for than when they are viewed merely as things available for the benefit of humans. Water decisions informed by a kincentric approach reflect the belief that water is sacred and connects all living things.

  3. Valuing the wealth all around us
    First Nations recognize the inherent value in water for water’s sake rather than for what water can provide to humans. Instead of basing water and land use decisions strictly on an economic basis or by the measure of the profits they will produce, water management decisions need to value the inherent wealth in water.

  4. Environmental justice: learning to say “No”
    Some First Nations suggest that as stewards of the land, it is important to say “no” sometimes. “If we are to protect water into the future—for all life— then we need to recognize that we have a responsibility to say “no”, that we need to speak for the waters, the land, and for all those life forms with whom we share the ecosystems. Environmental justice requires a commitment to honouring all of our living relations and measuring the impacts of our decisions not only on humans or immediate generations but also on the present and future generations”.12

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8.1.5 Moving Towards a Water Ethic

In theory, integrated watershed planning is an attractive concept. As an approach, it seeks to reconnect society to water’s life-giving role. In practice, however, it is a challenging new path for some communities, in part, because it represents a new ethic for many.

“Adopting such an ethic would represent a historical philosophical shift away from the strictly utilitarian divide and conquer approach to water management, and towards an integrated, holistic approach that views people and water as related parts of a greater whole. It would make us stop asking how we can further manipulate rivers, lakes and streams to meet our insatiable demand, and instead ask how we can best satisfy human needs while accommodating the ecological requirement of healthy water systems.” - SANDRA POSTEL, Director and founder of the Global Water Policy Project

Where is BC in terms of adopting a water ethic? Evidence suggests that there is significant momentum building towards adopting such an ethic. While some local governments recognize the value of integrated watershed planning, not all are able to undertake this approach for a wide variety of reasons, including:

  • limited financial and human resources;
  • limited expertise, including internal staff and external professionals;
  • limited decision-making authority, particularly regarding activities on Crown and/or private lands in sectors or areas of watersheds that are beyond local government jurisdiction;
  • limited awareness of the integrated watershed planning process and limited experience in initiating and managing it. Who should be involved? What data are required? How would it be funded? What are the thorny issues? All these questions may contribute to doubt that such a process might be achievable, or may cause hesitation or reluctance that it might come with numerous challenges;
  • limited public support and/or public or stakeholder opposition; and
  • limited legislative clarity regarding who is responsible for watershed planning and exactly what it should look like.

Many of these challenges and limitations are identified, explored and addressed in this guide, and insights are offered in the literature that was reviewed in the preparation of this guide, through interviews with local government staff, within case studies and from project advisors.

Despite these challenges, in BC and beyond, many communities are moving towards a more integrated watershed management approach. In the Okanagan region, new innovative measures such as the Okanagan Sustainable Water Strategy have been developed. On Vancouver Island, CAVI (Convening for Action on Vancouver Island) is connecting communities and encouraging collaborative dialogue on water-based issues that extend beyond municipal boundaries. See section 8.3.1 for more on CAVI.

Momentum seems to be arising from increased public awareness and concerns over changing conditions of water resources, and a willingness and capacity to participate in decision-making.14 Some communities, such as Coquitlam, Saanich and Langley, are now being seen as leaders in watershed planning. Conversations with municipal staff in these communities suggest that there are many critical factors that work together to enable a watershed-based approach to planning. These include:

  • a burning issue within the watershed that demanded attention (e.g., water health issue, community conflict);
  • an awareness and recognition among staff of the importance of watersheds in understanding issues;
  • a political will aligning with staff capacity and commitment;
  • a willingness to work with neighbouring municipalities in shared watersheds;
  • a designated body to coordinate the effort (e.g., Regional District, Okanagan Basin Water Board), with funding from participating municipalities;
  • a strong stewardship ethic within the community; and,
  • a watershed that is at a scale that is practical and reasonable to work with.

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About Rethinking our Water Ways

This website is a guide to help BC communities learn more about planning for local watersheds and water resources, navigate current planning processes, consider relevant issues and challenges — including regional climate change impacts —  and build capacity to develop and implement plans.


The Rethinking our Water Ways guide and website are possible thanks to funding support from the BC Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Canada's Regional Adaptation Collaborative Program. The guide and website were launched and distributed through a series of regional workshops throughout BC, with funding contributions from the Fraser Salmon and Watersheds Program, Environment Canada and the Real Estate Foundation of BC. Learn more about our funders and advisors.

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Share your suggestions for this website, and ideas for future water workshops, with:

Steve Litke
Senior Program Manager
T: 604 488-5358

About the Fraser Basin Council

Rethinking our Water Ways is an initiative of the Fraser Basin Council (FBC), a charitable non-profit society that advances sustainability in the Fraser River Basin, across BC, and beyond. Established in 1997, FBC brings people together from multiple sectors to learn about sustainability and find collaborative solutions to current issues. Learn more about FBC by visiting