Protection of heritage Cowichan River questioned by stakeholder, MP
The Cowichan River still has heritage status, but its environmental protection from development could be drained by Ottawa's recent Bill C-45, a local MP and stakeholders claim.
Of 37 designated Canadian heritage rivers, just 10 now fall under protection by the Navigable Waters Protection Act, Cowichan NDP MP Jean Crowder's staff states. Those 10 don't include the Cowichan.
Pulling its protection "is clearly to allow (potential) development," said Crowder.
"Before," said her staffer, Yana Stratemeyer, "if there was development proposed on a river like the Cowichan, there had to be an environmental assessment to see what the impacts would be on the river. Bill C-45 reversed that requirement. There's no requirement to do an environmental assessment all."
And even before the federal omnibus bill, Cowichan River's heritage status had never included any resources from the federal government, said Crowder.
"The heritage river term has always been a red herring, just a designation. Now, with the change in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the navigable waters act, there's even less protection for our river because Cowichan is no longer on the list."
What used to trigger an assessment under the NWPA act, no longer applies to the Cowichan, she explained.
Heritage title or not, Cowichan's fishery values are still guarded by the feds, Department of Fisheries and Oceans staffer Tom Robbins explained.
"Heritage-river status has no impact on Fisheries and Oceans Canada's protection provisions for fisheries," reads his email to the News Leader Pictorial.
But levels of fisheries protection were doubted by Parker Jefferson of river stakeholder group One Cowichan.
He claims his sources maintain the valley's DFO section brass handed layoff notices to all enforcement and habitat personnel, and one-third expect job terminations.
Wrong, explained DFO's Terence Davis.
"No one got a layoff notice in the Duncan office," Davis said.
Robbins' email explains DFO habitat-program employees were told they might be affected by changes to the Habitat Management Program.
"This does not necessarily mean they will lose their job, however, they may be asked to relocate, or be redeployed within the department or government."
Most employees who received letters will keep their job, be re-deployed within the department or retire, Robbins notes.
But Jefferson said DFO's remaining local employees have been told to "make all public complaints go away."
"There is now no enforcement for any infractions in habitat degradation or other fisheries violations."
Jefferson sent his worries in a letter to Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, fearing Cowichan's fish will suffer further damage with a dip in DFO staff.
"We feel fish are a critically important part of the ecosystem and need more protection if they are to survive in these challenging times of climate change," he tells Ashfield after the Tories passed omnibus bills C-38 and 45 affecting environmental assessments.
A DFO staffer said Duncan's office has two enforcement officers, a community advisor, and a community habitat worker. A habitat biologist also retired. That post is to be replaced.
Crowder said DFO staff have "pre-approved messages they're allowed to put out."
"There's been continued erosion of ability to respond locally," she said. "They don't do layoffs. They just don't replace people."
Meanwhile, Davis said DFO is focusing habitat-management operations on protecting Canada’s fisheries against real threats to productivity.
"We are moving forward with a more practical, common-sense approach for low-risk projects undertaken in and around water which have little or no impact on the fisheries," he emailed the Leader.
DFO's new program, wrote Davis, shifts from managing project impacts to a protection program addressing threats to commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fisheries.
"Regulatory reviews will be focused on the larger, higher-risk projects, while standards and guidelines will be developed to guide proponents in the design of smaller, lower-risk activities."
But reducing protection to just commercially viable fish leaves many stocks legally unprotected "and in grave danger of extinction at the hands of industrial development," Jefferson said.
He claimed staff "were assigned exclusively to specific projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline."
Davis explained Canada's fisheries protection units will review projects in marine and coastal development, hydro and flows, mining, oil and gas; and 'linear developments' such as power lines, roads and bridges.
B.C.'s program offices will be in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Kamloops, and Prince Rupert.
Crowder was dubious.
"How much direct service will happen in areas outside those points? How many managers will be in those delivery points? What's response time going to be like?"
"But what is it exactly (DFO) is going to do?" demanded Crowder. "They're managing the language to allow themselves to do exactly what they want to do."
DFO, she claimed, aims to streamlining project approvals, and not protect the environment.
Local Conservative, John Koury, said Ottawa's two bills let the feds give regulatory oversights to local governance, "be it provincial or local, for it is they that know better how to care for (fish resources).
"By taking away some of the layers, we will be better served by more local control to deal with local issues, such as the Cowichan River," he said.