Five ways the community can support Cowichan watersheds

The Discourse held an event about watershed solutions. Here’s some of what we learned.
A photo of the Heritage Room at the HUB at Cowichan Station where community members are seated in an audience, facing a panel of experts. They are there to learn about local watershed solutions.
Community members gathered on Jan. 30, 2023 at the HUB at Cowichan Station to learn about solutions for the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) and Xwulqw’selu (Koksilah) watersheds. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

On Monday, Jan. 30 community members gathered in-person and on Zoom to learn about solutions to support the health and sustainability of local land and water. The event, hosted by The Discourse, was held at the HUB at Cowichan Station and was met with a full room of listeners who heard from Quw’utsun Knowledge Holders and local experts over the course of two hours.

The evening was moderated by Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable co-chair Genevieve Singleton. Quw’utsun Elder Qwiahwultuhw (Robert George), Quw’utsun Knowledge Holder and biologist Q’utxulenuhw (Tim Kulchyski), fisheries biologist Cheri Ayers, UVic doctoral student Kristina Disney and ecoforestry expert Heather Pritchard spoke at the event.

Each speaker drew on the knowledge they hold, sharing teachings and insights about land and water particularly in the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) and Xwulqw’selu (Koksilah) watersheds. They also offered tangible solutions that community members could take on to support these watersheds. Based on what they shared, here are five different ways you can support local watersheds.

A video recording of the event is available on our Facebook page.

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1. Be mindful of the water and the energy you put into it

Quw’utsun Elder Qwiahwultuhw (Robert George) says the water is a living being that holds sacred space. He says people should be mindful of the water as a life force and consider how our actions, thoughts and energies affect the water.

Before entering the water, Qwiahwultuhw says he always throws a pebble into it and asks for permission to enter.

“We don’t just go and force our way into the space,” he says. “There’s been too much of that happening in this world.”

And when leaving the water, Qwiahwultuhw says to share something with it that can travel with the water as it moves across the lands and to different places on the earth.

“Spread the virtues of our love, kindness, respect and generosity so that energy travels in the water that travels all around the world,” he says. “So whatever thoughts go into the water — that travels. It may help somebody, a plant or an animal somewhere along the way.”

Quw'utsun Elder Qwiahwultuhw (Robert George) stands and speaks as other panelists from the watershed solutions event are seated beside him: one to his left and three to his right. He wears a red hoodie and black pants.
Quw’utsun Elder Qwiahwultuhw (Robert George) speaks about the sacredness of water at The Discourse’s watershed solutions event on Jan. 30, 2023. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

Qwiahwultuhw says Elders tell stories of how Quw’utsun People regularly cleaned up the river by paddling in canoes and clearing out wood and debris from it. He speaks of teachings that say to try and stay out of the river when eggs are hatching so as to not disrupt the fish. He points out that going in the water during these times or entering the water wearing sunscreen, hairspray and harmful colognes impacts the energy of the water and can kill the eggs that are in it. Qwiahwultuhw suggests that a bylaw, keeping people from entering the water for a period of time when eggs are hatching, could help to protect the water and fish.

“Be mindful of the life force that we don’t see,” Qwiahwultuhw says, and to help bring a sacred space back to the water, be mindful of the energy that is put into it.

2. First, protect old trees. Second, plant more trees.

Ecoforestry expert Heather Pritchard invited attendees at the event to go for an imaginary walk in the forest as it would have been 500 years ago. She explained that the forests would have been filled with old-growth trees with dense canopies above and rich, thick, organic soil below. Large fallen trees would have rested on the ground, decomposing and providing nutrients for the soil and fungi as well as homes for insects and wildlife. During a winter storm, all of these elements would have helped slow down the water as it moved from the mountains, down the watershed and eventually into floodplains, where it branched off until it met the estuary. In the summer, water stored in the deep, organic soils and old trees would have been enough for trees, shrubs and living beings to live off of. 

However, Pritchard says 150 years of land use — such as forestry, agriculture and development — has disrupted the environment. With less than one per cent of the old growth forest left in the Xwulqw’selu’ (Koksilah) watershed, there is no longer a good system to slow down water as it moves through the watershed, leading to flooding, washouts and fast-moving water in the river. In the summer, there is no longer rich soil and old trees to hold water, exacerbating drought conditions that are becoming more extreme as the climate changes.

This graphic shows the depletion of old forests, indicated in dark green, in the Koksilah watershed from 1954 to 2018.
This graphic shows the depletion of old forests, indicated in dark green, in the Koksilah watershed from 1954 to 2018. Image from the 2019 Ecosystem-Based Assessment of the Koksilah River Watershed report, pg. 36, by Heather Pritchard et al.

And while new trees have been planted, Pritchard says they actually spend about the first 100 years of their life sucking up large volumes of water from the watershed in order to grow. That water eventually transpires in large volumes into the atmosphere through their leaves.

So what’s the solution? Pritchard says, “We need to keep the forests in place to combat low flows.”

“If you live in any of those properties where you have forest, if you have any way to influence other people, find ways to keep the forest in place,” Pritchard says.

And the second-best solution is to plant trees. But Pritchard notes that these young trees will need a lot of time before their benefits in a low-flow season will be realized.

One specific initiative that Pritchard says the community can get involved in is a Xpey’ (Cedar) restoration project to mitigate the loss of these trees — a cultural keystone species that has been threatened by development and climate change. Learn more about this project in this story by The Discourse and on the project website, here.

3. Keep a holistic view of the watershed and make space for all types of knowledge

Quw’utsun Knowledge Holder and biologist Q’utxulenuhw (Tim Kulchyski) says that in order to come up with sustainable solutions for the land and water, people need to think about watersheds as a whole and learn about how everything — including the forest, water, plants, fish, wildlife, insects and people — is connected. To do so, he suggests starting with listening in order to learn and understand the deep histories of the watersheds and the changes that have taken place within them.

He notes that Quw’utsun language is important because it connects people to stories about the water and the spirituality associated with it. These stories provide important context for any future work in the watersheds. Respecting these stories by making time to listen and learn about them from Quw’utsun Elders and Knowledge Holders is key, he says. Furthermore, creating space at decision-making tables for people of different backgrounds — and with different knowledge — is also important to ensure that solutions are grounded in cultural, historical, spiritual and scientific knowledge.

“It’s a big thing coming here and being able to share,” Q’utxulenuhw says. “What we’re sharing is a different way of looking at things than has been the standard.”

Tim Kulchyski is in the right of the photo, seated and speaking. The photo is taken from the chest up. He wears a sun-faded, black baseball cap and a black long-sleeve. To the left of him in and slightly in the background, out of focus, is Heather Pritchard. She is facing Tim, listening. She wears a black long-sleeve with a red striped pattern on it. Tim is answering questions about solutions for local watersheds.
Quw’utsun Knowledge Holder and biologist Q’utxulenuhw (Tim Kulchyski) answers questions from the audience at The Discourse’s watershed solutions event on Jan. 30, 2023. Seated next to him is ecoforestry expert Heather Pritchard. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

4. Collaborate to find solutions

At the event, fish biologist Cheri Ayers spoke about some key learnings from the Twinned Watersheds Project, co-led by Cowichan Tribes, Halalt First Nation and the Cowichan Watershed Board. The project examines the health of salmon and watershed habitat in both the Koksilah and Chemainus Rivers, which have been impacted by climate change and decades of land use. The rivers are faced with issues such as low water flows in the summer and habitats that aren’t sustainable for salmon.

So far, the project has offered insights on the health of the salmon and watershed habitats for both rivers. These insights show us how the changing shape of the rivers — largely due to land use over the past 150 years — contributes to declining salmon populations as well as high- and low-flows in winter and summer months.

Ayers called the Koksilah and Chemainus rivers the “forgotten cousins” of the Cowichan River because work in them has not been as well-funded or as extensive as it has been in the Cowichan watershed. But the work being done through the Twinned Watersheds Project is vital in order to come up with solutions to support their health — and it wouldn’t happen without collaboration. 

“The main thing is that collaborations are very fruitful. No matter what you do, when you bring different perspectives to the table everybody learns,” Ayers says.

The decision by Cowichan Tribes, Halalt First Nation and the Cowichan Watershed Board to combine efforts for this project not only allowed them to secure funding to do this work, but also allowed for a “cross-pollination of ideas” where learning could come from each river system, Ayers says.

5. Get involved in a community science project

University of Victoria doctoral student Kristina Disney spoke about learnings from a project called Xwulqw’selu Connections. The project aims to learn where streams go dry in the Xwulqw’selu (Koksilah) watershed and brings community members together over data collection efforts to understand groundwater in the watershed.

Learnings from the project so far include scientific findings — like the fact that 80 to 90 per cent of water comes from the upper Koksilah watershed in the summer, or that during low-flow seasons there are three or four main tributaries that contribute significant amounts of water to the river system compared to others. But Disney says the lessons also include the importance of community connections to the watershed and community contributions to science.

For the last two summers, community members have monitored the temperature and mineral contents of water in the Koksilah watershed, contributing to a large data set that offers a broad picture of the health of the watershed and its groundwater. It’s work that scientists can do but Disney says the Xwulqw’selu Connections has made a point to make this work accessible to community members, too. Many folks involved in the project live in the watershed and not only know it, but feel connected to it. 

A photo of the audience members at The Discourse's event to learn about solutions for local watersheds. The photo is taken from behind them as they are seated and listening.
Community members listen to local experts speak about issues in the Quw’utsun and Xwulqw’selu watersheds, as well as solutions to support the health of the watersheds. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

While the project only has funding for five years, the tools and knowledge used in it is accessible enough that the community could continue this work into the future — and that’s been done on purpose.

“Our hope is that the work we do will contribute to some of those water decisions,” Disney says. “We want that data to go somewhere. It’s not just the process of building knowledge, relationships and connections, but when that’s done we want it to have some value going forward.”

You can learn more about Xwulqw’selu Connections in this story from The Discourse and on the project’s website. If you’re interested in contributing to this community science initiative, please email Jennifer Shepherd at

Learn more about what’s happening in the Quw’utsun and Xwulqw’selu watersheds:

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