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As research lead and project manager at the University of Victoria’s POLIS Water Sustainability Project, Rosie Simms helps decision-makers centre water in planning and building healthy communities.

This piece is part of a series of profiles highlighting young people across the country who are addressing the climate crisis. These extraordinary humans give me hope. I write these stories to pay it forward.

Rosie Simms and her POLIS colleagues at the Cowichan River. Photo courtesy of Rosie Simms

Tell us about your work.

Fresh water is the basis of all life. In Canada, we have often taken water for granted, assuming its abundance. This sense of security is now threatened as more and more communities deal with devastating droughts, floods, fires and contaminated water.

At POLIS, our work addresses the root causes of water sustainability problems. We look at how laws, policies, and governance (who makes decisions and how) need to change to ensure our rivers and streams can keep our land and people healthy, provide communities with greater influence over their watersheds, and respect Indigenous legal orders.

We aren’t just a think tank, but a “think and do tank.” Our research is a starting point for action and change. We collaborate with a wide network of decision-makers, influencers, academics, experts, and on-the-ground organizations and develop ideas and practical solutions to inform policy, decisions, and action. For example, we helped ensure B.C. water laws provide sufficient flows for nature and consider both water and land in decision-making.

A lot of the joy in my work comes from bringing people together to elevate and support communities to protect their watersheds. I am especially excited by recent game-changing partnerships between Crown governments and Indigenous nations.

Rosie Simms on a field trip to the Nicola Watershed in 2018. Photo by Jennifer Archer

Can you give us an example of the problems you are trying to solve?

As research lead and project manager at the University of Victoria’s POLIS Water Sustainability Project, Rosie Simms helps decision-makers centre water in planning and building healthy communities.

British Columbians consistently agree water is our most precious natural resource. But too many communities are now stuck with a traumatic cycle of fires, floods, drought, and contaminated water. We need to break out of these crises and stop going in circles.

Our rapidly changing environment and weather systems require us to be much more adaptive. We need watershed plans that link land and water, restore critical watershed areas like wetlands and forests that will buffer floods, protect drinking water supplies, and rethink how water will be shared equitably during drought. Inclusive planning is one of the most important pathways to community cohesion and resilience as we learn to adapt.

Our water laws and policies also need to be updated to align with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There are many glaring inconsistencies that must be addressed. One example in B.C. is the “first in time, first in right” water allocation system, which gives senior water rights to the person who did the paperwork first, ignoring Indigenous nations’ stewardship of their water in accordance with their own laws for millennia.

Communities and local partners face major barriers accessing stable resources to do important watershed protection planning, restoration, guardians programs, and monitoring. A key area of our focus is building sustainable funding and, in particular, putting in place a provincial Watershed Security Fund that will aid this work in the long term.

What brought you into this work?

Two formative experiences when I was 17 set me on my path. I was part of a program that took a group of southern and Inuit youth off the coast of Baffin Island for an immersive learning experience. Sitting on the frozen Arctic Ocean listening to our Inuit guides speak about the massive changes they were seeing was a real call to action. I then spent a year in Bolivia and saw first-hand how important it was to local people to fight for control over their own water in the face of privatization. From there, it seemed like no matter where I looked in my studies and work — Canadian mining in Latin America, bottled water, drinking water issues on reserves — water governance was the common thread.

Rosie Simms and POLIS communications director Laura Brandes at Thetis Lake. Photo courtesy of Rosie Simms

What gives you hope?

Water is a common meeting place for so many issues, priorities, and people. The support and demand for solutions is only growing and we are starting to see stronger commitments from governments. We still have the opportunity to prepare and to steward our watersheds, knowing if we do, watersheds will take care of us in return.

What makes your work hard?

This work of transformative change is very much a “long game.” Deeply entrenched laws and ways of working don’t always change as quickly as I would like. There’s a lot of inertia and a lot of unlearning and trust-building to do. It takes time to build relationships and do thoughtful policy work, but at the same time, we can’t wait for action.

Do you have any advice for other young people?

Establishing a network of peers for co-mentorship, learning, and sharing the ups and downs of this work is so important. Celebrate the successes, even if they feel small.

What would you like to say to older readers?

Intergenerational learning and mentorship are invaluable — as is creating space for younger folks to lead.

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Thanks for this: great to see young people - anyone - involved. Just one picky, uncomfortable issue. It is never "their" water. Water should probably not be assigned to any single entity, be that a privatized municipal water, a farmer, or a First Nation. This is part of why UNDRIP and similar well-meaning and needed efforts must proceed with great care.