Reporter’s Notebook: Learnings from the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’

A group of citizen volunteers is mobilizing to explore connections and create solutions for the Koksilah watershed.

In June 2022, a group of community members gathered near the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ (Koksilah River) to sign up for a community science project.

As hot dogs and veggie dogs grilled over a fire and folks sipped on Cowichan Valley tap water, people chatted about their connection to the water and why they were there.

Most were there to hear more about the Xwulqw’selu Connections project, which aims to learn where streams go dry in the Koksilah Watershed and what can be done to increase water flows in the future. 

The five-year project is in its second year and focuses on connections — between people and the watershed, between the surface water that we see and the groundwater that we don’t see and between community science and policy that affects the watershed.

I was there too, as part of a new group of volunteers signing up to monitor temperature and mineral conductivity of streams and tributaries that feed into the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’. 

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What I didn’t realize at that time was that this project offers much more than just science. It offers an opportunity to intentionally be in relationship with the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ and connect with others doing the same.

“There’s this emphasis on really getting people out onto the land,” says Ella Martindale, a Quw’utsun community researcher with the project who spoke with me on the phone. “I think there’s a lot of collective learning that we can do together.”

Risks to the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ (Koksilah river)

The Xwulqw’selu Connections project is led by the Groundwater Science and Sustainability research group at the University of Victoria and is guided by Cowichan Tribes, the Province of B.C., the Cowichan Watershed Board and the Koksilah Working Group. 

PhD Researcher Kristina Disney says she felt called to the project because she’s interested in groundwater.

“Pun intended, it’s the underdog,” Disney says as she sits near the Kinsol Trestle, which stands tall over the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’. “It’s one of these resources that we use … almost on a daily basis … We just assume that it’s always going to be there for us. And it’s not.”

Kristina Disney is a PhD Researcher with the Xwulqw’selu Connections project. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

The Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ (and its watershed) lies within the lands of the Quw’utsun People. It is central to Quw’utsun creation stories and holds great cultural and spiritual significance. Fish, such as salmon and trout, call the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ home and the river itself provides for all living things around it.

The region’s agricultural community also relies on the watershed with approximately 15 per cent of the water supporting local farms and vineyards. Privately managed forest lands make up nearly three quarters of the watershed and residents enjoy the Xwulqw’selu through parks and swimming holes along various portions of the river.

Related story: Quw’utsun Elders lead cedar planting ceremony at Bright Angel Park

But summer flows in the river have become so low that the aquatic ecosystem and fish population is at risk. In response to this, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development issued an order to specific water users — like farmers — to cease using water from the river for industrial purposes in August 2019. This was the first time an order was issued under the Water Sustainability Act to protect fish populations in the province.

The same order to cease industrial water use from the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ was issued again in 2021 as extreme drought took hold of B.C. and the Cowichan Valley region.

Bright Angel Park is a popular swimming destination in the hot summer months. This photo, taken after a heat wave in the region, shows the water as its temperature measures around 20 C. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

“At present, there is this converging moment of essentially climate change catching up to us, 100 years of land use and present land use and all of it is coming to a head and people’s lives are being seriously affected here,” Disney says.

In March 2022, Cowichan Tribes and the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development reached a historic agreement to develop a Water Sustainability Plan for the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ watershed.

Disney and the rest of the Xwulqw’selu Connections team hope that data from the project — which is owned by Cowichan Tribes — can help inform the Water Sustainability Plan.

Watching the water

Through the use of accessible tools and phone apps, the Xwulqw’selu Connections team trains community volunteers to measure and record the temperature, mineral conductivity, depth, width and flow of water in 30 different sites that eventually flow into the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’. The sites are part of seven tributaries in the upper and lower Xwulqw’selu watershed.

Disney likens the streams, tributaries and river to a human body’s circulatory system. While the heart is central to the system, the health of veins, arteries and capillaries are essential as well. 

“We’re looking at the tributaries because each of those plays an ecological, economical and cultural role,” Disney says. “[But] no one has yet given evidence of which ones are vulnerable  and which ones are actually major sources for the main stem of the river.”

Kristina Disney, seen in a yellow vest, shows community members how to use a water monitoring tool at the volunteer sign-up barbecue in June 2022. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

Groundwater, Disney says, is an underdog because while it’s underneath our feet all the time, it isn’t something people interact with directly. When taps turn on or wells pump, the outcome of groundwater is seen but the source isn’t. She says she hopes this project will help us understand the health and patterns of groundwater in the Koksilah watershed. Data from the project will also be used to model future scenarios for the river and what we can do to contribute to its sustainability.

To monitor streams, groups of two or more go to the same handful of sites every other week. The sites are often in ditches or culverts near rural properties close to the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’. Volunteers carry a special pen-looking tool with a small scoop on one end of it. After making physical observations of stream depth, width and flow, the tool is used to scoop up water and read its temperature and mineral content.

The data is entered into a citizen science phone app called Anecdata, which then stores it and sends it to the Xwulqw’selu Connections team. It’s easy enough for just about anyone to do, making contributing to this project fairly accessible.

Kristina Disney takes a water sample from a stream. “If you care about the Koksilah, you have to care about the ditches, too,” she says while standing below a culvert off the side of a rural road. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

I’ve now had the opportunity to visit my group’s assigned sites twice and am noticing a difference in the water as summer moves along. Some streams are already visibly dry while others are surprisingly cool and still flowing. Not only am I learning about the river in an intentional way, but I’m also connecting with it and making space for it in ways that I didn’t before.

“The choices we make upstream affect everything below us,” Disney says. “If you realize and understand how connected you are to your area, then there’s a certain sense of communal obligation that goes with that too.”

Connecting with the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’

The first time I went out to monitor streams with my fellow group members, I was a little weary. Some of the ditches we were climbing into were quite steep and mosquitoes were just about everywhere. I had wet boots and, at one point, wiped out on a slippery rock heading down to Kelvin Creek near Hawthorne Road and the Cowichan Valley Trail. 

But once we got down to the creek, things changed. We took our water sample and just stayed there for a short while, scooping up the cool water with our hands and thanking it for all that it offers. I looked upstream and listened to the water, forgetting about my fall and my feelings. The water carried my nerves away and then we continued on to the next site.

Jennifer Shepherd, a community researcher with the Xwulqw’selu Connections project, first met me in the spring after learning about my intentions to report on water in the Cowichan Valley. She invited me to volunteer with the project to help me be in relationship with the water and those who are connected to it. She shared a learning with me, from Quw’utsun Elder Qwiahwultuhw (Robert George), to introduce myself to the water and ask for its permission to do this work. It’s a learning that I’m trying to carry with me whenever I’m by the water.

Jennifer Shepherd takes a moment to introduce herself to the water at Glenora Creek. She later throws a pebble into the creek and, shortly after, sings to the water. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

“If I sit there and listen to the sound of the water and what I’m smelling and the air moving through, you know, I’m changed after having that little visit with the water,” she says as the two of us sit by Glenora Creek, which contributes to the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’. 

Shepherd sees her role as connecting with community members, the water, the land and place. She asks questions that invite people to reflect on how they are in relation to the water — from the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ and the streams and creeks that feed into it, to the oceans and the many ways water is present in our lives. 

She learns from farmers, forestry workers, researchers, ecologists, community members and more to learn about the many ways people work and connect with the watershed. Shepherd says she hopes inviting people to think about their connection to water will help them continually reflect and learn, as well as make space to notice our biases and adapt — just as the water does.

Learning from the land

“This is land-based education, whether you acknowledge it or not,” says Ella Martindale over the phone.

In her role as Quw’utsun community researcher for the project, she says she’s held space for conversations around what it means to be working in Quw’utsun territory and to be doing community-based science on lands where Quw’utsun Peoples used to live.

She says she also acknowledges the teachings that the Xwulqw’selu has to give, as well as place-based knowledge, in order to strengthen the work of the project.

Community members learn how to monitor the water at the volunteer sign-up barbecue in June 2022. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

The community-based monitoring that’s happening as part of Xwulqw’selu Connections is an integral part of the project, Martindale says. So too are the conversations team members have with policy-makers and communities working towards the sustainability of the Xwulqw’selu watershed.

At the sign-up event in June, I stood in a circle with a community of volunteers as we toasted to the water. Some were returning volunteers and others, like myself, were just getting acquainted with the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’. One thing was clear: there was a deep desire to learn and a strong sense of stewardship among group members.

The emphasis on getting communities onto the land is something Martindale says she values, and is what drew her to the project. She hopes the collective learning that comes out of this work can inform people to move towards a better future.

Shifting science

Martindale says the Xwulqw’selu Connections project also creates space to change the way scientific research like water monitoring and modeling is done — with community and land-based learning at the heart of it. She says she’s excited to see how the boundaries of academic research can be pushed further to include community science and knowledge.

Right now, citizen science often gets disregarded by decision makers, Disney says, because “it wasn’t carried out by some expert with some letters on the end of their name.”

But this is slowly changing, with projects like Xwulqw’selu Connections showing the value of citizen science. It can help fill gaps in knowledge, she says, and generate trust between communities, scientists and decision-makers. Technology like smartphones and accompanying apps like Anecdata make this work accessible to everyone. The cost of equipment, such as the pens used to monitor water temperature and conductivity in the Xwulqw’selu Connections project, has lowered significantly, making it easier for communities to access them.

Disney uses the pen tool to measure temperature and mineral conductivity of water in a stream. She inputs the data into the Anecdata app before moving on to the next location. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

“Anyone here can be as good or better at collecting data than myself,” Disney says.

The data from the Xwulqw’selu Connections project is considered open data — available for anyone to analyze and use — and Disney says the project team is striving to create a tool that can be transferred to other regions in B.C., Canada and beyond.

Looking ahead

“It’s really important that we’re taking Cowichan futures into account,” Martindale says, as she looks ahead to outcomes of the project. “But everything we do is for the community, settlers as well, because everybody should be included in this way of moving forward.”

In my conversations with Martindale, Disney and Shepherd, it’s clear they’ve left a lot of space for inquiry and change as the project moves forward. They have a set of questions they’d like to answer, but they also include new questions that emerge along the way and adjust their scope to find answers. Just as the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ changes over time, so too does the Xwulqw’selu Connections project.

Part of the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’ near Bright Angel Park. In the summer, the water is cool and still — perfect for swimming. In the winter, the heavy flows change the shape of the banks as trees and soil wash into it. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

“I keep wanting to come back to these pieces about collective capacity to reflect and act together,” Shepherd says. “If we are showing up as volunteers monitoring, we’re shifting our own vibration with each other and what we’re putting into the water. That gets carried downstream, through the forest and with all the other people we are connecting with.”

With the effects of climate change already visible on the river, Shepherd acknowledges people may feel grief. But she says it’s important to hold space for that grief to move through us, rather then allow the fear associated with it to take hold. She says this can help build personal capacities and resilience so we are ready to adapt and support each other.

“I think one of the greatest gifts that we can offer in this project is to help people create that sense of readiness,” Shepherd says. “And the ability to change for what’s already here, and what’s coming.” [end]

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