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B.C. water activist shifting tactics in battle with government

A salmon is released at a lake just east of Vancouver in this 2008 file photo taken by Craig Orr of Watershed Watch.

Craig Orr/Watershed Watch

Craig Orr is shifting tactics after years of battling government over water issues in British Columbia.

But politicians shouldn't relax just yet because Dr. Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, knows that the old method of driving change through highlighting crises still works.

"Unfortunately there's a lot of research out there that shows we are not very good at proactive change. … You really need to create crisis to move people, to motivate them to change. Personal crisis, financial crisis, these kinds of things," he says.

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The new model that Watershed Watch is developing will see the influential organization put an increasing emphasis on community outreach and on working with industry. Government, however, can still expect to feel the sting of criticism from the group if it fails to act.

"It's kind of sad that sometimes you have to look at generating a crisis … versus working proactively with government. But that's the reality," said Dr. Orr, who founded Watershed Watch 15 years ago to push for better water-management policies in B.C.

One example he gives of change through crisis is the process that led BC Hydro to develop new water-management regimes to take into consideration the needs of spawning and migrating fish.

Dr. Orr said the Crown agency had been loath to alter operating plans that were geared primarily to producing power, with little regard for the needs of salmon.

"Many of us for years hammered at BC Hydro saying you are not releasing enough water for fish. We were meeting with the president and those kinds of things, and he said 'well the ratepayers won't accept us raising rates to save fish,' " said Dr. Orr.

Efforts to persuade the government to order change at BC Hydro failed. Then the crisis developed.

An audit of BC Hydro's operating licences showed that half of the facilities were out of compliance. At the same time the

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Steelhead Society, of which Dr. Orr is a past president, helped launch a NAFTA challenge that complained B.C. was only able to produce cheap power by undervaluing salmon habitat.

"These two things created a bit of a crisis for the NDP government at the time, because it looked like they weren't protecting fish," he said. "The crisis in government confidence that was created by that actually made them commit to a water use planning process around British Columbia. It looked at all [BC Hydro] facilities, and was a very expensive process. We sat for three years and negotiated with all the interests at the table what the best flows were for fish."

Among other things, the new standards led to a tripling of the flows in the Coquitlam River, which has contributed to a successful campaign to reintroduce sockeye salmon to the watershed after a 100-year absence.

"So the whole water use planning process, which was very positive … was created because there was a crisis," Dr. Orr said.

So, if that combative process works, why change it?

Dr. Orr says Watershed Watch is hoping it can find more positive ways to effect change.

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"We want to get more involved with people on the ground and get them more involved with conservation issues. It's called engagement organizing and we're very interested in how we can ramp that up," he said.

Watershed Watch is also looking for ways to form alliances with former protagonists.

"We're trying different models. We know we have to engage with industry more," said Dr. Orr. "And we seem to have more in common with industry than we do with government these days."

For example, his group is involved with several other NGOs in meetings with Clean Energy BC, an industry group that represents independent power producers in the province. The goal is to find common ground, and Dr. Orr says the energy sector has been refreshingly receptive.

Dealing with government, however, remains a challenge.

"It's frustrating to be an environmentalist in B.C.," he said. "So many people are being shut out of environmental decisions by federal and provincial government. We want to change that."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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