Watershed renewal project at B.C. First Nation bearing fruit as wildlife returning

As first appeared in the Globe & Mail July 11, 2022.

Contributed by Norm Allard and Neil Fletcher.  

Norm Allard is the Yaqan Nukiy Lower Kootenay Band community planner and a member of the Secwepemc First Nation. Neil Fletcher is the Director of Conservation Stewardship for the B.C. Wildlife Federation. 

When water began to gather and flow again in the Yaqan Nukiy Wetland in British Columbia’s Creston Valley after decades of aridity, word spread quickly among the region’s wild creatures.  

We are just five years into a project that will restore 517 hectares of floodplains, streams and rivers, and the sandhill cranes and blue herons have already returned, Western painted turtles have turned up, and brown bats have begun to patrol the skies. 

In the wake of last year’s devastating floods, the restoration of the Yaqan Nukiy Wetland is helping nature do its job again. The floodplain is now able to provide natural flood protection by absorbing freshets, the sudden, large volume of water created by heavy rain or snow melt. 

The Creston Valley floodplain was drained decades ago to create agricultural land, in line with the settler mindset that wetlands were useless or, worse, a breeding ground for disease. Native species dwindled, while invasive weeds took root. Without a natural outlet for excess water, Kootenay Lake and the Kootenay River were subject to floods and erosion. 

A collaboration between the Lower Kootenay Band and the B.C. Wildlife Federation (BCWF), the Yaqan Nukiy Wetlands Project was hatched to restore the area’s natural function as a floodplain and a habitat for moose, elk, grizzly bears, mule deer, waterfowl and fish, such as sturgeon and burbot. 

Yaqan Nukiy Wetlands, June 2022. Photo by Norm Allard.

In the process, a cultural bridge is being built. The net benefits of employing Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing with Western science and an earnest desire for collaboration greatly exceed the sum of those parts.  

First Nations people had managed the wetlands as a food source, a place for hunting and fishing with care. According to oral history, local Indigenous people became specialists in specific species and met regularly to exchange information about the health of local animal populations to avoid overharvesting.  

When deftly managed as a natural system, the wetland functioned to provide wildlife habitat, flood protection and food security. Returned to its natural state, it is doing all those things again.  

To restore the Yaqan Nukiy Wetland, more than two kilometres of dikes had to be removed and almost two kilometres of streams restored and reconnected to the floodplain. In the process, the Western notion of control over nature was discarded.  

Under the leadership of the Lower Kootenay Band, those Indigenous knowledge systems have been key to guiding the restoration. The project has also helped build economic capacity in the band, in the form of local expertise and heavy equipment, and provided seasonal employment to band members, which will soon lead to permanent jobs.  

To deal with a legacy of environmental degradation and the effects of climate change, First Nations and non-Indigenous British Columbians must work collaboratively, focused on our shared interest in wildlife conservation, healthy watersheds and a shared vision for the future.  

Yaqan Nukiy Wetlands, June 2022. Photo by Norm Allard.

The Yaqan Nukiy Wetlands Project is a shining example of what can be accomplished and a blueprint for First Nations-led watershed planning and restoration across B.C. and beyond.  

To support the band, the BCWF provided technical advice and helped secure funding through nine governmental and non-governmental agencies.  

The BCWF is also a member of the Watershed Security Coalition, a non-partisan, diverse coalition of 48 organizations representing 255,000 British Columbians. The coalition is calling for a provincial Watershed Security Strategy and Fund to support better watershed decision-making and strengthen community resilience for the benefit of all British Columbians. 

As all levels of government prepare to spend billions on flood recovery, it is critical that investments are made to strengthen our natural defence systems, allowing communities to build environmental and community resilience to future climate disasters. The coalition is thus asking for a minimum of 15 per cent of B.C.’s flood disaster recovery funding to be allocated to the Watershed Security Fund to provide a sustainable annual funding mechanism for rebuilding watershed resilience.  

As though to strengthen the case for action, the Yaqan Nukiy Wetland flooded in early June as warming weather triggered the spring freshet. Opening the floodplain has given us the breathing room we so desperately needed. Those waters will be released gently over time, as nature intended. 

Funding partners for the project include: Columbia Basin Trust Ecosystem Enhancement Fund, Real Estate Foundation of BC, Province of BC, Healthy Watersheds Initiative, Watersheds BC, Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program, Environment & Climate Change Canada Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk, Wildlife Habitat Canada, Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation.

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