By contributor Chantelle Spicer

Water is wonderful in all of its forms, whether I am taking a hot shower after a long day, or swimming in the Nanaimo River on a sparkling summer day. Most of my favourite childhood memories come to me while standing in the creek near my house, noting the seasons change in the trees surrounding it. Water is all around us every day, especially here on the coast, taking the form of dense fog that moves like ghosts in trees, and crashing waves against rugged shorelines. Many creation stories, from the Indigenous to the Christian, begin with water. It exists everywhere in literal and figurative forms.

In recent years, water has become the subject of conflict as our cultural connections come head-to-head with the fact that it is a life sustaining resource, forcing it into the realm of a capitalist commodity. As a transient and powerful force on the landscape it is hard to imagine owning water, yet companies ranging from Nestlé to logging companies are doing just that.

Water on a public scale is ruled by watersheds, which are incredibly powerful landscape features that work like the veins of our planet, moving water back to the heart of the earth—our oceans. To look at a watershed from above, it is easy to see the veins literally; the rivers and streams which make it up are almost mirrors of our own human circulatory system. The watershed in Nanaimo is massive, covering 23 thousand hectares (equivalent to 30 thousand soccer fields), and although the water is a publicly used resource, the land it resides on is privately owned.

This private land ranges from spectacular forests to logging operations and clear cuts under the management of two companies: TimberWest (which owns 12 per cent) and Island Timberlands (which owns the remainder). The City of Nanaimo website says the city itself owns the structures which provide its citizens with the tap water, including the footprints of two dams (the larger being Jump Creek) and the land under which its pipelines reside. This is all managed under the standards of the Private Managed Forest Land Act legislation as well as other provincial and federal regulations with regard to water quality. The City and forestry companies work together to manage the complex relationship between forest and water through a cooperative Watershed Management Plan. To ensure this all works according to plan, the city samples two thousand times per year, resulting in Nanaimo “water generally meet[ing] the legislation and guidelines for drinking water quality.”

To me, however, the water within our watershed is for more than testing and best-management practices for forestry operations. Rivers within our watershed hold significant spiritual meaning to the Snuneymuxw and Stz’uminus First Nations, neither of which were mentioned by TimberWest or the City of Nanaimo on their respective websites when I was conducting this research. The Nanaimo River is the setting for many of my summer days spent in idyllic wilderness, and I know I’m not alone. The waters have special value to the fish and wildlife which make the rivers their home, which include trout, amphibians, and salmon.

The relationship between forest and the watershed is what is most highlighted in this fight for the land. A forest in its natural state is not only a thing of beauty, but it also provides an important function to waterways through providing filtration. This is done by immense, established root systems belonging to the trees and understory plants which take up excess water during our frequent periods of intense rains. When the forests above the rivers are cleared, rain falls upon the hillsides, running straight into our drinking water system along with soil sediments and debris.

There have been recent pushes by concerned citizens to come to better terms with our relationship with our watersheds. In March 2015, the Nanaimo Council was approached to start the process of making these waters a publicly owned and controlled resource. The movement was backed by similar pressures from the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, which has brought the issue to the attention of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Three options were brought before city council that day: Purchase the lands around Jump Lake, take possession of the entire watershed, or create a governance structure which involves the community on land decisions in this area. All three options would allow the public to control clean, fresh water now and into the future, and would “[create] the foundation for resilient communities and a robust economy.”

The fight is not an unfounded one, although it would make Nanaimo a rarity on the provincial landscape, as only two other cities, Victoria and Vancouver, privately own their watersheds. I recently spoke with Paul Manly, former Green Party candidate, now a humbly concerned citizen who approached council regarding the issue of making our water a publicly controlled resource. Manly has been an advocate of water protection for years, having become a major voice in the area in 1993 when an exposé he did on logging in the Victoria watershed raised public awareness. Ten days after video footage of the devastation of the area was released to local news, logging operations were ceased. In 2007, Victoria went even further, purchasing the adjacent Leech Watershed, and allowing it to begin a return to its natural state as forested land.

In regards to our local Nanaimo watershed, Manly pointed out, “the land has changed ownership a few times already and could end up being owned by any foreign corporation or used for other purposes. At this time, it is logged right out. What we have seen happen in Shawnigan, which is also a privately-owned community watershed, is that it is all subdivided and has many resources being pulled from it. The Forestry Act and Mining Act supersede the Water Act. This is our most important asset we are talking about here, in terms of economics and health, now and into the future. This needs to be protected more fully.” Private ownership by foreign corporations is especially grievous for Manly, especially in regards to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Foreign Investment Protection Agreement, and the Korean Free Trade agreements.

At this time, there is no action on behalf of city council to move forward with the public purchase of our watershed. Concerned citizens, like Manly, in conjunction with groups like the Nanaimo Area Land Trust and the Nanaimo River Watershed Roundtable are going to be drivers of this action. That means us—anyone who cares about the many values that water holds for us as humans. All of us are inland seas, made up of water, surrounded by water, all of it connected. Water, water everywhere—who wants a drink?