One Cool Island — Freshwater is Life: Reconciliation and Restoring Island Wetlands
By ANDREA PALFRAMAN
TRANSITION SALT SPRING
Robin Annschild’s love affair with the Burgoyne estuary started back in 2000 when she was part of the movement to protect 5,000 acres in the watershed from clearcut logging.
As conservation director with the Salt Spring Conservancy between 2000 and 2014, she facilitated the acquisition of conservation lands, including establishing B.C.’s first-ever watershed covenant in the Maxwell Lake area. Over the past eight years, she has built and restored over 250 wetlands in B.C., California, Arizona and South Carolina.
The Burgoyne watershed — now known by its original Cowichan name, Xwaaqw’um — is one of the only places on the island where an entire stream system is protected parkland. Despite the changes wrought by early loggers and farmers, the valley’s waterways continue to provide homes for trout, salamanders, tree frogs, iridescent swallows and great blue herons. So, when the opportunity arose to use her expertise in wetlands restoration as part of a larger ecological and cultural revitalization in the park, Annschild jumped at the chance.
In 2019, a partnership sprang up between BC Wildlife Federation, BC Parks and Stqeeye’ Learning Society, which leads an ecosystem and education project at Xwaaqw’um in collaboration with Cowichan Nation.
Together, they came up with an overall conceptual plan looking at the potential for wetland restoration in the park, then set out to demonstrate what could be done. The first small Xwaaqw’um wetland was built in 2019. A year later, a bridge was removed and swales built around the Burgoyne Creek watershed, and more work is planned.
Working closely with Cowichan community members has been a process of reconciliation: not just between settlers and Indigenous peoples but also with the land. This process, says Annschild, is both challenging and fundamental to shaping any meaningful response to climate change.
“One of the amazing things about habitat and watershed restoration is that when you restore the cultural health of the people on the land, it is intrinsically connected to the health of the land itself,” says Annschild. “A kind of magic happens when the focus shifts from one person to another, and it becomes about the relationships between people and land. It takes focus away from individuals, and towards working together for a shared objective.”
As a focus for cultural “re-presencing” and a return to Indigenous land management practices, we can see Xwaaqw’um as a microcosm of the shifting human geography of British Columbia. Countless generations of Indigenous stewardship delivered thriving biodiversity. That balance altered when settlers brought land-use patterns centred around field agriculture and deforested pasture-land. Yet, the Xwaaqw’um watershed provides an example of the resilience and adaptability of species. Despite being crisscrossed by eight logging roads, streams in the watershed still have coastal cutthroat trout and coho salmon running through them.
Annschild’s work is informed first by developing an understanding of the disturbance history of a site. According to Annschild, the surprising, single most significant hydrological modification at Xwaaqw’um was the near-total eradication of beavers from the landscape. She remarks, “The presence of beaver in streams not only allows streams to flow year-round but buffers those streams against drought and wildfire.”
“Settlers in B.C. came after beaver populations had already been decimated; what is fascinating is that there is still active ongoing suppression of beaver in B.C., which is not acknowledged. It’s having a significant impact on our watersheds.”
Restoring Relations Through Riparian Revitalization
Changing rainfall patterns, the risk of summer drought, and summer wildfires are all predicted by climate models. Xwaaqw’um is just one site on the island where wetland restoration is taking hold. According to the recently released Salt Spring Climate Action Plan, wetland restoration plays an integral part in adapting to mitigate climate change impacts.
Water shortages have profound social impacts and ecological consequences: witness the moratorium on new hook-ups to the North Salt Spring Waterworks District water system that exacerbates the island’s housing shortage. Ironically, Salt Spring Island doesn’t have a lack of fresh water — it’s our seasonal droughts that put us at risk. One solution? Restore healthy watersheds to keep water flowing year-round.
Says Annschild, “We know boreal forest vegetation has a lot to do with generating moisture through taking water through roots and using what they need, then releasing water through transpiration, creating moisture in the air that can condense and fall as rain.”
Healthy forests on Salt Spring Island are integral to that precarious water cycle.
“It’s not enough to catch rainwater — we have to preserve the forests and ecosystems that bring the rain,” says Annschild. “To think of water as unrelated from trees is a defect of our thinking, of our cultural thinking.”
Annschild likens the draining of a wetland to that of taking out an organ from a healthy body. Wetlands provide so many critical ecosystem services: they filter and purify water, recharge groundwater and provide habitat.
“When I read about climate change, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the words ‘wetland drainage’ together with ‘wildfires and deforestation,’” says Annschild. “To me, we’re missing an ingredient in those models: we fail to calculate how we’ve already dramatically reduced the resilience of our watersheds.”
One way forward is to look to traditional ecological knowledge, held by elders like Tousilum, as a way to restore ecosystems and build resilience to weather the coming changes in climate. Understanding and responding to the intertwined dynamics of water, forest, human culture and habitat, require systems thinking — a mode of understanding that is expressed in Indigenous legal and cultural practices.
Says Annschild, “When we go out to restore a wetland, we find that the productivity of those areas goes up tenfold in terms of habitat restoration — dragonflies, bats, herons, tree frogs. Species native to those ecosystems are adaptive and readily colonize new wetland habitats. You see an incredible response.”
“What if you could spend $1 on climate change mitigation and get $100 worth of value? If you invest in wetland and stream restoration, you get a long list of benefits,” enthuses Annschild. “What’s so exciting to me is that, while there are many places on Salt Spring Island where people are feeling those summer droughts, there are also just as many opportunities for wetland restoration on the island.”
For a deep dive into hands-on wetlands restoration instruction and learning, visit the Wetlands Institute’s online speaker series from the BC Wildlife Federation: https://bcwf.bc.ca/wetlands-program/wetlands-institute-speaker-series-webinars-2020/.
You can also learn about freshwater conservation and riparian restoration in the Salt Spring Climate Action Plan from transitionsaltspring.com/climateactionplan where you will also find resources on what you can do as a land steward of property you own or care for.
One Cool Island is a regular series produced by Transition Salt Spring (TSS) on how we can all respond to the climate crisis together. Andrea Palframan is a member of TSS. To support climate action on Salt Spring Island, go to transitionsaltspring.com.