Salmon Arm figured prominently in a report from the office of the B.C. ombudsperson on the Riparian Areas Regulation which found widespread room for improvement.
The report made 25 recommendations ranging from public access to reports, to training for those people compiling them – 24 of which the provincial government has accepted.
The Riparian Areas Regulation, or RAR, is provincial legislation enacted in 2005 to protect areas surrounding watercourses from development that will damage fish habitat.
It became a focus of attention during the rezoning process for the SmartCentres shopping centre development.
RAR uses what’s called a professional reliance model. A qualified environmental professional, or QEP, hired by the developer, must compile a report detailing how close a development can be to a watercourse, taking into consideration such factors as high water mark.
In the case of SmartCentres, a citizens’ group called WA:TER, Wetland Alliance: The Ecological Response, repeatedly asserted that the development, initially to spread over 55 acres, would be built over channels historically taken by the Salmon River, and should be scaled back.
The group made Freedom of Information requests to access the QEP report and pointed out flaws in its data and conclusions pertaining to matters such as the high water mark and 200-year flood levels.
A case summary in the ombudsperson’s report under ‘public information and access’ cites the Salmon Arm situation, without naming it.
“The citizens contacted the ministry with their concerns and, as a result, the ministry, for the first time in the history of the RAR, hired an outside consultant to review the QEP’s work. The ministry ultimately required the QEP to submit a fifth assessment report. This resulted in a reduction of the area available for the development from more than 24 hectares to approximately 6.5 hectares.”
It also states: “Ministry staff told us they had done more work on this case than in 95 per cent of the ministry’s RAR monitoring activities.”
From this, the ombudsperson recommended that the province make RAR reports and their associated mapping files easily accessible to the public.
Another recommendation is that the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations review all the RAR assessment reports submitted to the ministry each year.
This had been done up to July 2009, but then the ministry decided that reviewing only 20 per cent of reports would be appropriate.
“The ministry did not provide us with a clear rationale for this decision,” states the report.
In response to the recommendation, the ministry agreed to review every QEP assessment received, but for only two years.
In general, the ombudsperson recommended better and wider oversight by the government.
“The RAR must strike an appropriate balance between professional reliance and effective governmental oversight to work effectively.”
Warren Bell and Frank Bugala of WA:TER were heavily involved in the SmartCentres process.
“The basic message we drew… is the RAR has been badly implemented from the start and the ombudsperson recognized that…,” said Bell, noting they were told Salmon Arm’s problem was a major trigger for the review.
Bell stated that “between 2004 and 2009, the ministry never second-guessed a decision by a QEP; we were the first.”
He said no matter how scrupulous a QEP is, “you can’t hire them and pay them out of the pockets of people who really want something to happen and then expect them not to be affected.”
Bugala said he is proud to have been part of WA:TER’s team that provided a key part of the evidence that supported the report’s recommendations.
“The 25 changes…mark a clear vindication of the efforts of the community to protect the Salmon River, its delta, and our lake. This systemic review by the BC Ombudsperson shows what we are all capable of attaining in the protection of our environment and its ecosystems.”
A copy of the report can be found at: https://www.ombudsman.bc.ca/images/resources/reports/Public_Reports/Striking_a_Balance_Report.pdf.