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From Stream Management to Watershed Governance: The Collaborative Restoration of Vancouver’s Still Creek
From Stream Management to Watershed Governance: The Collaborative Restoration of Vancouver’s Still Creek
Problems and Purpose
Watershed governance is generally considered to provide more effective and collaborative pathways for local governments and communities to carry out the restoration of urban ecosystems. In the context of urban streams, this governance approach has demonstrated potential to both mitigate certain cumulative human impacts on urban streams and also improve their social-ecological resilience (Brandes, 2005; Parkes et. al, 2010; Parsons, 2015).
Yet these outcomes are often the consequence of long-term and complex processes of watershed planning and implementation. Indeed, a prevalent feature of managing and restoring urban streams is navigating the complexities of institutional bureaucracy, jurisdictional overlap, and multitudes of stakeholder interests (Brandes, 2005; Larson & Lach, 2010; Parsons, 2015). Consequently, the restoration of urban streams can be utilised as a frame to thoroughly examine the conditions that may lead to effective and collaborative governance of watersheds. One set of conditions analysed closely here are deliberate efforts of communities and local governments to reshape the spatial and institutional dynamics of command-and-control stream management into collaborative watershed governance. Such efforts will be explored in the case of Still Creek in Vancouver, Canada.
Still Creek is one of the last remaining visible streams in Vancouver. Flowing for 17 kilometers through densely populated areas of Vancouver and Burnaby, it empties into the Fraser River and eventually the Pacific Ocean. While the cumulative effects of urban development have continually threatened the ecosystem’s integrity, recent efforts by local governments and communities to engage in ecological restoration have reduced record-high levels of pollution in the creek (ISMP, 2007; Parsons, 2015). More notably, after 80 years of being a largely uninhabitable marine ecosystem, a small number of salmon are once again returning to spawn in Still Creek (City of Vancouver, 2013).
These early signs of revitalization in the stream are deemed to be the indirect result of a broader, multi-government initiative to “reduce flooding, reconnect people with Still Creek and its natural beauty, and improve long-standing environmental issues throughout the Still Creek Watershed” (City of Vancouver, 2013). Contributions from municipalities have involved excavating culverts and daylighting sections of the stream; removing invasive species and planting native vegetation; and providing wider riparian zones to reduce flooding. On the other hand, community organizations have provided effective means of public engagement and stewardship. Collectively, these actions derive from a collaboratively-planned vision for the long-term restoration and protection of Still Creek. To understand how such a vision took form and surmounted the complexities of urban stream planning, a closer analysis is first needed of the stream’s historical background.
Prior to the pursuit of a watershed governance model for Still Creek, the stream’s history was marked by a progressively worsening ecological state (City of Vancouver, 2002). Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, city officials and engineers planned the stream using command-and-control approaches to environmental management. Moreover, decision-making processes were shaped by anthropocentric perspectives of the natural environment (Parsons, 2015). In practice, these approaches consisted of maximizing the creek’s utility for draining sewage and storm water, and systemically placing the stream in culverts to accommodate expanding populations and urban development in Vancouver and Burnaby (ISMP, 2007).
During the 1950s-1960s, city planners and developers envisioned the entire stream would eventually be enclosed in culverts, which led to buildings and houses being constructed directly alongside the creek. Thus, the problems of flooding, erosion, poor water quality, and diminishing opportunities for recreation and public access were all exacerbated (ISMP, 2007). Yet the mentalities of communities along Still Creek shifted after the 1960s-1970s. Local residents formed various groups of “streamkeepers” and other stewardships societies and began improving the ecological state of Still Creek and its neighbouring tributaries. Meanwhile, this era was also one where city planners began to incorporate ecological values into their planning of urban waterways (Parsons, 2015).
This shifting paradigm toward community-driven planning for ecological resilience and restoration culminated in 2002 with the creation of the Still Creek Rehabilitation and Enhancement Study (hereafter: “the 2002 Enhancement study”). The study outlined action plans for a 10-50 year time period for several sections of the stream and emphasized that local governments should conduct extensive public consultation and participation to inform and support the study’s action plans. Most notably, this encouraged formal partnerships between ‘streamkeeper’ organizations and local governments to jointly enhance awareness and stewardship of the creek through public education and stream-side art installations. Above all, the study served the integral purpose of reframing the restoration of Still Creek through long-term visioning and multi-jurisdictional and multi-stakeholder collaboration at a watershed scale (City of Vancouver, 2002).
It is also worth noting the aspects that have been critical to the implementation of the 2002 Enhancement study’s restoration projects in Still Creek. First, maintaining buy-in via financial support from local governments and organizations has ensured funding for the significantly high cost of restoring creek sites. Two additional and more complex aspects have been managing jurisdictional overlaps to ensure more effective and collaborative governance, and incorporating stakeholder interests to encourage public participation in stewardship and advocacy for Still Creek’s restoration, both of which will be subsequently discussed (Parsons, 2015).
In 2000, the Still Creek Greenway Enhancement Fund was created by the City of Vancouver for the purpose of raising funds to support the long-term enhancement of the stream. A few years later, Vancouver’s private sector and regional government made further contributions for the enhancement sites identified in the 2002 Enhancement study. Vancouver city planners also augmented the fund by applying for grants related to education, public engagement, and mobility needs. Ever since, the fund has become vital to the successful rehabilitation of multiple sections of Still Creek. An example of this process is the Nootka Street Site – a successfully restored site that cost approximately $728,000 and was financed collaboratively through the Enhancement fund (Table 1).
Meanwhile, the jurisdictions exercised in Still Creek are numerous. In fact, federal, provincial, regional, and municipal governments all have various, and somewhat overlapping, sets of jurisdictions in the Still Creek watershed. As is the case with all streams in Canada, the presence of wild salmon in Still Creek designates the stream as ‘fish habitat’, thereby triggering the federal jurisdiction of Oceans and Fisheries Canada (DFO) pursuant of the Fisheries Act. Likewise, the BC Ministry of Environment is involved through its jurisdiction over riparian habitat of fish and in-stream protection via regulations on pollution, development, and water use mandated in the Water Sustainability Act, the Fish Protection Act, and the Environmental Management Act. On the other hand, Vancouver’s regional authority, Metro Vancouver, manages stormwater conveyance through the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District Act. Finally, municipal governments including the City of Vancouver and City of Burnaby retain control of land use, as well as property adjacent to Still Creek (City of Vancouver, 2002).
Conversely, local residents, landowners, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have had a sustained and active role in the stewardship and enhancement of Still Creek. On the NGO side, the Evergreen Foundation and Still Moon Society are two NGOs actively involved in educational and public awareness activities in Still Creek. In particular, Evergreen has partnered with local governments in undertaking stream rehabilitation and riparian planting, whereas Still Moon has developed cultural events and public art installations around the creek. The role of landowners and local residents has been ensuring property alongside the creek contributes to stream resilience and avoids planting invasive species or dumping pollutants (City of Vancouver, 2002). In the broader implementation of watershed governance, many individuals from these stakeholder groups have participated in meetings with local governments to contribute to the long-term vision of Still Creek during the enhancement phases (Parsons, 2015).
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
With several jurisdictional authorities and participative stakeholders at the table, the implementation process of Still Creek’s enhancement is politically complex. Yet a common theme in the case of Still Creek, and perhaps essential to watershed governance, is the recognition that local governments and communities are often mutually interdependent on each other’s cooperation and support in order to successfully implement ecological restoration. Although the 2002 Enhancement study was a formative first step in moving towards watershed governance, the definitive step that acknowledged this interdependence unfolded five years later.
In 2007, the Integrated Stormwater Management Plan (ISMP) was collaboratively established by local governments, community members, and other stakeholders. The purpose of the document is to integrate “land use planning with flood management, environmental protection, and recreational enhancement strategies and initiatives” (pg. ii, ISMP, 2007). It achieves a watershed governance perspective by incorporating Metro Vancouver’s regional rainwater management approach with local and municipal government’s Official Community Plans, Neighbourhood Concept Plans, as well as parks and transportation plans (ISMP, 2007). Furthermore, there was explicit agreements made with all municipalities within Metro Vancouver that they would create local integrated plans for storm water management of local streams within the following decade.
The deliberative process used to formulate the ISMP’s goals, strategies, and visions was the Still Creek Steering Committee, which consisted of representatives from Metro Vancouver, City of Vancouver, City of Burnaby, and British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). In order to make the collaborative process more inclusive of all relevant jurisdictions, representatives from the provincial Ministry of Environment and federal Fisheries and Oceans Canada were involved in the decision-making. On the other hand, prolific community organizations, such as Beecher Creek Streamkeepers and Still Creek Stewardship Society (now disbanded), along with local residents and landowners, were additionally consulted through dialogues, open houses, and workshops (ISMP, 2007). The result is a document with a holistic, watershed-level perspective and long-term vision for Still Creek.
The ISMP explicitly states the strategies necessary for its successful implementation, these include:
- Effective communication and education on the watershed vision and values
- Political acceptance and commitment to the watershed plan
- Generation of enthusiasm and buy-in at all levels
- Financial planning for program implementation
- Detailed project prioritizing and programming
- Program monitoring and performance measurement
- Linkage of the Still Creek ISMP to other City/GVRD strategies and plans
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The ISMP designates ‘potential lead agencies’ and ‘partners’ for various initiatives within the watershed based on jurisdiction and relevance, and assigns both estimated timelines and costs for all of them. Agencies who received stream governance recommendations range from municipalities to landowners; from local schools to the Ministry of Transportation and Highways. Therefore, it appears that all entities who interact directly or indirectly with the watershed are encompassed in the recommendations and those with overlapping jurisdiction or interests are encouraged to work collaboratively. For instance, the objective of ‘adding in-stream habitat’ to Still Creek is a recommendation assigned collectively to municipalities, streamkeepers, land owners, and Metro Vancouver. In this way, the collaborators on the ISMP have entirely reshaped the management of Still Creek into a broader, shared governance initiative (ISMP, 2007).
In the years since the ISMP was established, flooding has reduced and water quality has improved. In the past four years, small numbers of salmon also have managed to return to the heavily urbanized and mostly culverted section of Still Creek running through Vancouver. However, it remains to be seen what will become of this ecosystem in the long-term. The ISMP recognizes that the restoration of the creek, along with joint stewardship activities, will have to continue for several decades in order to achieve the vision that governments and communities have created for the creek (ISMP, 2007). In the meantime, it is clear that the planning and governance in place seems well-equipped, at least in principle, to manage for the long-term resilience and sustainability of Still Creek.
What this suggests more broadly about watershed governance is that it relies on high levels of transparency and accountability, which subsequently reinforce cooperation. Indeed, all levels of government had to share information and collectively manage jurisdictions in order to be effective in restoring Still Creek. The commonly theorized issue of government agencies protecting their ‘turf’ did not arise in any limiting way in this case (Kearney et al., 2007). Instead, social and political capital were substantially gained from the watershed governance approach. Predicting the necessity of holism, the 2002 enhancement study emphasized that “a complex web of bio-physical, regulatory, policy and planning factors interconnect within the watershed of Still Creek” (pg. 23, City of Vancouver, 2002). As has been proven thus far, harnessing this interconnection is essential to effective governance.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Key to watershed governance is not only managing ecosystems at higher spatial and longer temporal scales, but also fostering vertical and horizontal cross-scale linkages. The former implies that governance must look holistically at long-term interactions between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, whereas the latter refers to the need to create cooperation and dialogue between varying governmental agencies and departments as well as diverse stakeholder groups at lower levels on the power scale (Kearney et. al, 2007). In the case of Still Creek, it is evident that watershed governance is embedded in the planning and implementation processes of the stream’s restoration and stewardship. However, a key mechanism still needed is an entity to formally monitor and evaluate the long-term ecological benefits of these collaborative efforts. Even with the gradual and historical paradigm shift from stream management to watershed governance in Still Creek, the progress of local initiatives must be assessed for the stream’s social capital to be best utilised. Hence, the success of Still Creek will likely rest on collaborative efforts to continue developing this watershed governance initiative into one that manages for the social and ecological complexities that occur presently and will arise in the future.
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