Governing is hard. Governance can be thought of as the way in which the will of the people is made effective through the decisions of government (UN). Politics can be defined as “the activities of the government, members of law-making organizations, or people who try to influence the way a country [or other entity] is governed (cambridge).” Politics is an inevitable part of governance whenever decisions can impact people differently, and this is almost always the case. The challenge of good governance is figuring out how to effectively ensure that the will of the people is made effective in the face of political realities.
Winston Churchill is credited with saying
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… (Langworth, 2008).
We rely on a democratic process to grant decision making authority over government decisions. Those who gain the right to exercise that authority do so through a political process, offering the voters something of a plan for what they hope to accomplish while in government. Since there are typically only a few candidates or parties on offer, these plans seldom perfectly match the preferences of any voters. The winning candidates platform therefore is more like the least undesirable option than something the community wants implemented as is. Candidates who appreciate the dilemma this creates will not emphasize ‘doing what they promised’, but rather focus on understanding what is the will of the people on both an issue by issue basis and in the overall direction for the community. In the case of our city, our elected members deserve credit for choosing drinking water as a priority after a consultation process, rather than as I incorrectly asserted was an election issue.
For Kelowna, we periodically go through a guided community consultation process to update our official community plan. From the city website, the “… Official Community Plan (OCP) provides a policy framework for Council by addressing issues such as housing, transportation, infrastructure, parks, economic development and the natural and social environment.” A significant amount of council’s time is spent dealing with development proposals that are not consistent with the OCP, with the proponent asking council to provide them an exception. We believe that this right to appeal is an important part of our democracy, and the public part of council meetings are a place we provide for the community to comment on these appeals. Unfortunately, this part of the process is inclined to be biased against the broad interests of the community.
Where council is considering a decision, such as approving a land use change, those who have the most at stake will put in the most effort to influence the decision in their favour. Consider as an example building a boardwalk from City Park to Gyro Beach at the high water mark along Okanagan Lake. There are a bit under 100 parcels with lakefront that would see a boardwalk between their back yard and the lake, should such a proposal go ahead. These residents would have their privacy reduced, and would argue that their security was also impacted, and that these effects would manifest as a reduction in their property values. There is at best mixed evidence for such property value reductions, as properties near pathways are often found to command higher prices (Hobden et al, 2004). There are presently three waterfront properties listed for sale, at an average asking price of a little over $3 million, along this part of the waterfront. If we imagine that these properties would loose 1% in value as a result of this pathway, then the average home owner along the lakefront would be worse off by $30,000 should a pathway go in. It is therefore not surprising that these land owners would be very active in their efforts to stop such a proposal, attending public meetings, lobbying council members, etc. Taking those approximately 100 properties together, they would collectively loose about $3,000,000 in property value if the boardwalk goes in.
On the other side are those who would enjoy the pathway. Imagine that the average Kelowna resident would use this pathway twice per year, and do so instead of going to a movie, meaning that their time on the boardwalk is worth around $30 per year. With about 120,000 residents in Kelowna, that works out to the pathway generating a benefit of $3,600,000 per year to Kelowna residents. Notice that with these hypothetical numbers, the value to Kelowna residents of this boardwalk per year is greater than the total value lost to the property owners. Investing $3,000,000 to generate an annual benefit of $3,600,000 is a pretty good investment. However, for the average Kelowna resident, is that $30 benefit enough to get them to keep up to date on what is going on in the city, attend public meetings and council meetings, etc.? For many it won’t be. Therefore, a public process around a decision like this will invariably give extra weight to those most affected, and there is a pretty good chance that the option which is best for the community is not the one that will be chosen.
My experience of most people who work for the city or have put themselves forward for office is that they genuinely want to do what is best for the city. Most are also not naive about the pressures I have described. However, they are human, and the political pressures, the pressures to make decisions quickly, the limited resources to carefully study the impacts of proposals, the limited resources for enforcement to ensure compliance, etc., means that decisions made by the city will not always be consistent with what is best for the people of the city. I have the utmost respect for the efforts of both city staff and our elected members, but effort is not the same thing as outcome, and I think when we make changes, such as reorganizing the way that water is managed in this city, we need to consider what the best decision process will be going forward. It isn’t obvious to me that putting all decisions about water under the control of city council is ultimately the way to make the best decisions about water.
There are two issues that stand out in the debate, protecting the health of Mission Creek and protecting the interests of agriculture. At present, the irrigation districts play a large role in both of these areas. Mission creek and its tributaries are important water sources, and therefore need to be protected, and the irrigation districts are only responsible for a single service, water, with agriculture being a key user group. The city has clearly stated that it will protect Mission Creek and the interests of agriculture (castanet). I think we need to consider what governance arrangements are best to protect these interests.
Cities do not typically deliver irrigation water, and irrigation districts do not typically deliver potable water to households. In Alberta, only recognized irrigators have the right to vote as members of the irrigation district (Irrigation Districts Act). This ensures that decisions made prioritize irrigation needs. Arrangements are similar elsewhere. Rights to irrigation water are held either by the irrigators themselves with the district as an entity providing a service (delivering water) or held by the district, with control of the district vested with the irrigators. Should something similar be set up for irrigators in the Mission Creek watershed? I.e., should the rights to irrigation water be vested with the individual irrigators, and then the city be contractually obligated to deliver those irrigators water in volume and seniority consistent with those licence rights? Or should a single irrigation district, the Kelowna Irrigation District, be created that holds all the agricultural licences and is responsible for delivering irrigation water? That entity could then enter into a contractual agreement that in the event of a drought, water is supplied to the city in exchange for a payment to the district. Such contracts exist between irrigation districts and municipal water utilities in California (Tomkins et al). Something like this would give security to agricultural water users in a way that would not be as easily subject to the pressures faced by the city.
Protecting Mission Creek is a divided responsibility. The city is subject to provincial and federal laws, and to the expressed wishes of the citizens of the city. Resources for monitoring and enforcement in the upper watershed are limited. In the lower watershed, were most of us live, there are some great things being done. One example is the Mission Creek Restoration Initiative. The Mission Creek Greenway is one of the gems of our city. However, are we investing as much in protecting an enhancing Mission Creek as we should, or are those same forces that would make it challenging to move forward with a waterfront boardwalk also making it difficult to achieve that level of investment in the creek consistent with what is best for all the citizens of Kelowna. Are there ways to restructure the governance of the watershed so that the protection and enhancement of the creek is further prioritized?
One interesting approach to this is being tried in New Zealand, where a river has been given the rights of a person (Smith, 2016). Two trustees, one from the local iwi indigenous community, are tasked with speaking on behalf of the best interest of the Whanganui river. In effect, the river, and thereby the watershed, has rights. Such an arrangement may give voice to those nonhuman entities that cannot vote in municipal elections. Would something similar be a way to ensure that the interests of Mission Creek are protected?
Should we develop a Water Sustainability Plan for the Kelowna area, something that is possible under the relatively new Water Sustainability Act? Such a plan could address the unique needs of this watershed, including protecting a share of the water for agriculture and for the environment, and be given the force of law. City decisions that impact on Mission Creek would then be subject to the watershed sustainability plan.
We seem to be moving forward with significant changes to the way that water is governed here in the Kelowna area. I am happy that there are discussions of the relative merits and risks going on, and even as I have many questions, I do not see the city – staff or elected representatives – trying to do anything other than what is best for the people of the city. However, there are pressures that make it challenging to achieve what is best. I think given the significance of the change we are contemplating, we should take the time to come up with a way of governing our watershed that has the best chance of protecting the interests of all who are connected to that water.
- Langworth, Richard. Churchill by himself: The definitive collection of quotations. PublicAffairs, 2011.
- Hobden, David W., Gary E. Laughton, and Katherine E. Morgan. “Green space borders—a tangible benefit? Evidence from four neighbourhoods in Surrey, British Columbia, 1980–2001.” Land Use Policy 21.2 (2004): 129-138.
- Tomkins, C. D., Weber, T. A., Freyberg, D. L., Sweeney, J. L., & Thompson, B. H. (2008). Managing Water Supply Uncertainty: Option Contracts and Short-Term Water Transfers in California. Policy Brief, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University.
- Smith, James L. “I, River?: New materialism, riparian non‐human agency and the scale of democratic reform.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint (2016).