One Cool Island: Thinking like an island in the Hwmet’utsum watershed

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By ANDREA PALFRAMAN

Transition Salt Spring

The little village of Ganges sits at the mountain’s feet. Every cup of coffee, every load at the laundromat, every splash in the public pool — it all comes through the many creeks, streams, ponds and lakes of the Maxwell watershed. Mount Maxwell is known as Hwmet’utsum, or  ‘bent down place’ to the Hul’qumi’num speaking peoples. 

Most of us have hiked up to the summit of Mount Maxwell to take in the view. But: how often do we make the connection between the intricate riparian network that threads through Salt Spring’s largest continuous forest, and the water we use daily? 

Comprising Douglas-fir, Garry oak meadows, salmon-bearing creeks and the largest undeveloped estuary in the Gulf Islands, Hwmet’utsum’s parklands and protected areas make up 1,100 hectares of forest lands. The watershed also supplies potable water to thousands of islanders. But after a century of logging, fire suppression, poor forest management practices and road-building, today we are left with an accumulation of pressures that are the carrying capacity of the watershed, contributing to a moratorium on new water connections. 

The area needs a helping hand.

Enter the Lake Maxwell Watershed Resiliency Project. Funded through Environment and Climate Change Canada’s EcoAction Fund, it’s a partnership between Transition Salt Spring, SSI Water Preservation Society, SSI Fire Rescue, North Salt Spring Waterworks District (NSSWD), and the SSI Conservancy. 

During a time when we are experiencing extreme weather events like “heat domes” and “atmospheric rivers” — phenomena we didn’t even have names for a decade ago — the Maxwell watershed project is an opportunity to begin working together to adapt to the climate crisis. 

According to research scientist Ruth Waldick, on small, rain-dependent islands, renewing water systems by keeping forests healthy is the name of the sustainability game. 

“The Climate Action Plan demonstrates that protecting our natural forested systems is the single most important thing we can do,” says Waldick. 

A research scientist who left her government job to research and implement Transition Salt Spring’s Climate Action Plan,  Waldick is all lit up about joining forces with the community to tackle its main priorities. 

“This is the most exciting project I’ve ever done in my professional life.  So much rests on this watershed, and here we are, able to do something to build resilience in a tangible way. It’s really exciting to see people step up, and volunteer to take action with us.” 

One of those people is Gary Gagné. An elected trustee with NSSWD for the past three years, the former officer on Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior is more comfortable on the frontlines protecting old-growth forests in places like Clayoquot Sound and Fairy Creek than he is sitting around boardroom tables. But Gagné is also taken with the ambition, scope and potential of the Mount Maxwell project. 

“We’re heading for a major wake-up call in terms of water on this island,” says Gagné. “Being involved in something where we are actually restoring wetlands means we prioritize improving the health of forests. In turn, more diverse forests with natural undergrowth won’t burn, because there’s more moisture in the ground.” 

Working in tandem with researchers from several universities, local experts and fire professionals, NSSWD crews are learning new ways to interact with water flows, control erosion and “think like a mountain.” The focus is on learning how to support what nature would be doing in a more intact ecosystem.

There’s no way to create more water in a rainfall-dependent system, but there is a way to make it more available: capturing it in the watershed. 

“Once we start cleaning up and restoring wetlands, Maxwell Lake will not drop nearly so much in the summertime as it will be continuously fed by springs and groundwater that is now just rushing off the mountain during big rains,” says Gagné.

While you might still find him on the Fairy Creek logging frontlines, he’s excited to take action at home with a project that has such big benefits. 

“It’s hard to find things to be involved with that can contribute to a positive future for this planet. This project allows experts to get boots on the ground in a degraded ecosystem, restore wetlands and bring a major recharge area back to health.” 

Creative resistance and cooperative restoration

The story of the Hwmet’utsum watershed is the story of logging in B.C. writ small. But, because it’s Salt Spring, our version of that story has a twist. 

Once upon a time, much of the forest on Mount Maxwell was threatened by clear cut logging after Princess von Thurn und Taxis sold 5,000 acres to the Texada Logging Company. A creative community effort — complete with nude eco-protectors led by Lady Godiva on horseback — led to the creation of Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park. It also led to the protection of a significant portion of the Maxwell Creek watershed, much of which is managed by the NSSWD.

All’s well that ends well? Not entirely. 

It turns out that putting previously logged land aside without restoring it creates a brittle, fire-prone forest whose disrupted water systems can lead to catastrophic erosion and watershed contamination, as this island saw during this winter’s record-breaking floods. 

Now, thanks to a diverse group of committed scientists, firefighters and hydrologists, Hwmet’utsum’s story may be getting a new chapter.

“Protected lands where water can slow, sink and spread into the island have been extraordinarily beneficial for us,” says NSSWD’s Sandra Ungerson, a water scientist and integrated water resource specialist. “This project now gives us the opportunity to restore that natural cleaning process at the headwaters of our drinking water system, which will reduce phosphorus and sediments from getting into Maxwell Lake.” 

Part of the work involves looking for restoration opportunities within degraded areas of the watershed. Says Ungerson, “there’s an area where large trees have been knocked down — probably in the windstorm of 2018. This event provided an ideal space for us to start a tree nursery. You look at it and at first see devastation, but if you look at it another way, it’s a gift, ripe for starting native seedlings. Washed in sunlight and ample groundwater it provides an excellent location. This place gives us an opportunity to restore the naturally diverse ecosystem by bringing back species and restoring existing species that belong there.” 

While to an untrained eye, piles of windfall timber and slash from earlier logging look to be a fire hazard, the Maxwell Creek Watershed Resiliency Project is prioritizing restoring soils and berm-making over chipping and burning, allowing the organic materials to nourish future forests, boosting native ecology and slowing the spread, clean and retain the water cycle. The plan also includes thinning single-species forested areas that have grown back too closely together to allow for naturally fire-resistant undergrowth to flourish. 

Ungerson sees the watershed as a reflection of the health of our community. Diversity and resilience in ecosystems, she explains, strengthens the same values in the forest that cultures require who depend on the forests and wetlands. Restoring one brings nourishment to the other. 

“We are trying to make sure our unhoused have housing, that our working families can remain here, that this island doesn’t turn into an exclusive seasonal resort-focused community that the majority of Salt Springers have said they don’t want it to become. To do so, we have to rehabilitate our watersheds,” Ungerson explains. 

“The measure of our success will be that, within the island’s carrying capacity, people will still have access to water so that both people and nature can flourish.” 

Connecting the dots

In the Mount Maxwell watershed, the first goal — land protection — is being accomplished, with another 345 acres being folded into the parklands map as we speak. The next order of business is more complex and involves re-connecting systems that have become fragmented. That includes wetlands, wildlife corridors, and — on a systems-level — organizations. This deeper layer of stewardship will require more cooperative, hands-on efforts by many organizations working as one.

“It’s a whole giant reciprocity circle that’s going on,” Waldick explains. “All of the project partners stand to gain. With the Climate Action Plan, Transition Salt Spring has been trying to develop solutions that bring us together. This project is a demonstration par excellence of that.”

Ungerson agrees. “So many projects are about how many big pieces of equipment you can muster and how fast you can do the job. You don’t often get the opportunity to do a real community restoration project. I am excited about getting volunteers working in little pods along the watershed to reconnect the broken links.”

As our relationship to Hwmet’utsum matures, we are being called to shift from simply protecting the area, to becoming mindful stewards, gently helping to bring nature back into balance. 

“It’s not just for people and it’s not just for nature,” Ungerson says. “It’s the integration of the two. This project is a way of re-affirming our first role on this Earth, as stewards for the generations to come.”

One Cool Island is a regular series produced by Transition Salt Spring on how we can all respond to the climate crisis — together. Andrea Palframan is a member and volunteer writer Transition Salt Spring, and director of communications at Raven Trust. To support Transition’s climate action work, go to https://transitionsaltspring.com.

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