Almost 100 people crammed into the new offices of the WaterWealth Project Saturday to kick off a community organizing initiative aimed at protecting local rivers, lakes and groundwater from threats like pipelines, gravel mining, industrial agriculture and urban sprawl.
"We are going to be political and we are going to be controversial if need be to ensure that we're protecting our home waters," the fledgling non-profit's director, Sheila Muxlow told the crowd.
But the organization's first goal won't be to take on political elites.
First it aims to "amplify the voice of people who care" by connecting local residents around the topic of water, said Angus McAllister, a public opinion researcher who is lending his technical expertise to the initiative.
"One of the biggest impediments to moving forward is people thinking they're alone," he said.
The organization's first project, starting March 18 in time for Canada Water Week, will be to collect stories about local water from people in Chilliwack to Yale and plot them on a community map using computer software.
"Essentially we're going to rent a bunch of iPads, formulate a team of volunteers and get out into the community and start doing some face-to-face conversation with people, recording stories and ideally weaving a bit of a tapestry of the valley and the water wealth we have here and the connections that exist between people," Muxlow told the Times.
The data, which will be collected in places like malls, schools, seniors facilities and First Nations communities, could range from stories about favourite fishing and swimming spots to reminiscences about pure, unchlori-nated drinking water.
"That is our plan, to celebrate and acknowledge the water wealth we have here in the valley and, in doing so, also confront the threats that are coming our way, that are threatening to take that away from us," Muxlow said.
Ultimately, she said, WaterWealth's goal is to produce legislative reform that would ensure 100 per cent community control when it comes to decisions that impact local waters.
"Right now, like with the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the yes or the no is threatening to come from Ottawa or from Victoria, and that's not OK, that's not good enough," Muxlow said.
"We're the ones who have to deal with the consequences. We are the ones who are going to be the most directly impacted by these developments. We have rights, and we should have the right to say yes or no to those types of projects."
With startup money from the Shift 41 Fund (a Victoria-based non-partisan, non-profit group that relies on individual donations) and six part-time staff, WaterWealth has about four months to get off the ground.
But the campaign has already signed up "dozens of volunteers," according to a press release.
And Muxlow, whose local activism with the PIPE UP Network has so far centred around protesting the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline that runs through Chilliwack, said water has potential to bring more people together on a broader range of issues.
Her goal is to make WaterWealth a place for those people to combine forces.
"We want to create a space for those us who do care to say, 'Hey, maybe you felt like you were alone in the valley. It's been a conservative stronghold for a long time. Here's a space where people do care, where you can connect with us, where we're not weir-dos. We're normal folk.' "
? For more information, visit www.waterwealthproject.com.