The following article by Project Watershed‘s acting Estuary Coordinator, Krista Kaptein, was published in the InFocus Magazine, June 2012. Click here to read the article on their website.

Project Watershed campaign calls on the arts community to help preserve the Courtenay River Estuary.

By Krista Kaptein • June, 2012

Nancy Morrison works on her stained glass piece for the art auction in her Tin Town studio. Photo by Boomer Jerrit.


The Courtenay River Estuary is a special and unique feature in the Comox Valley.  Second only in importance to the Fraser River Estuary, it is one of only eight Class one estuaries in British Columbia and provides habitat for 145 bird species—more than 70,000 birds.  It is also home to 218 plant species, 29 fish species—including all five species of pacific salmon—and innumerable species of intertidal creatures.

Beginning with the inspiration of a single water droplet, the effort to raise awareness for the protection of this important estuary has spread to encompass the whole watershed, from mountains to ocean.  TheKeeping it Living estuary awareness campaign coordinated by Project Watershed Society is now in its third year, and has grown to involve artists, scientists, environmental groups and the outdoor recreational community.

Stained glass artist Nancy Morrison was one of the early visionaries of the campaign.  In her Tin Town studio, surrounded by color and light, Morrison recalls the ideas that led to the development of the campaign, following Project Watershed’s Heart of the Watershed estuary symposium several years ago.

“I had been thinking about art and the estuary for a few years, and heard about the symposium coordinated by Project Watershed in 2008. When I read the Keeping it Living statement that came out of the symposium, I was quite surprised that it was so similar to what I had been thinking about,” she says.

Art is one of our biggest natural resources—we have the highest per capita of artists in North America,” says Morrison.  “We could use that resource as a means to spread the word—how beautiful it is here, to give everyone the information that the estuary is an incredible ecosystem, so important to the whole area.”

“Project Watershed was at Earth Day, with a big 3D map of the whole watershed, and I thought ‘Oh wow’!” she recalls.  “It was such an incredible image, really bringing across that the watershed involves the whole of Baynes Sound, and the whole mountain range—the estuary is such a good focal point including the whole water system.

“A little picture of a water drop was with the display,” she continues.  “I had just finished a glass piece of the same image, a single water drop, because I had been thinking about the water situation on this planet.  It was a crystal ball—‘what does the future hold?’ is what it meant to me.  Seeing the same image at that display at Earth Day, all these things clicked.”

Every year Morrison donates a piece to the community, so she decided to approach Project Watershed with her water drop piece, and her idea for an arts approach to Keeping it Living.  Morrison met with Project Watershed business manager Caila Holbrook.  “She was looking for a campaign—there was some synchronicity too!” Morrison recalls. “We had lunch, I told her the whole concept and she listened, she got it, and approached the board.”

It is easy to see how Holbrook’s energy and enthusiasm contributed to the campaign. Even now, with a young baby and on leave from Project Watershed, she projects the same spirit that carried the campaign forward.  “Under the direction of Don Castleden, Project Watershed chair at that time, we formed the Estuary Working Group after the estuary symposium,” Holbrook says.

“It took a long time to work out what we saw as the future for the estuary.  We came out with a visioning document, then wanted a way to share it with the community.  We wanted something where everyone was involved—that everyone has a stake in, whether recreationally or artistically.  Then Nancy happened to walk in to the office one day with this beautiful art piece—the drop of water.  That’s how it started, she had so many ideas and great enthusiasm.  It seemed that both of us were converging on a similar idea.”

Project Watershed has been promoting community stewardship of Comox Valley watersheds through information, education and action since 1993.  Their mission is recognized locally and internationally for the ability to provide technical expertise in the area of watershed inventory and mapping, and for the ability to involve volunteers in diverse stewardship programs.

Holbrook began as manager of Project Watershed’s mapping centre service.  “As things got going, we realized we needed someone to help with estuary activities,” she says.  “I am an environmental scientist, that’s what I did my masters in.  When Don Castleden started talking about the estuary, I got really excited, so did what I could to help out, such as fundraising.  Then the position I was hired for morphed into ‘estuary coordinator’.”

Project Watershed chair Paul Horgen and Kona. Photo by Boomer Jerritt.


The core fundraising concept was to invite artists to submit pieces for a silent auction, with 50 per cent of the proceeds to the artist and 50 per cent to the awareness campaign. The art entries are also awarded several prizes, including the purchase one of the art pieces to feature in the next year’s campaign.

The first Keeping it Living campaign was launched in 2010.  “The first year we had very lofty ideas!” Holbrook says with a laugh.  “We had a big gala, with a creative production that really made the estuary come alive.  We focused on celebrating the estuary on the positive side.  We are at a point where a lot of the big industry is gone, a lot of what is causing areas to be degraded is moving out of the estuary.  There is so much awareness now—the campaign is a way we can show the public what is going on, that we are continually working on this, that piece by piece, the estuary is becoming more what it once was.”

The Keeping it Living campaign this year culminates with a special event on July 28—Experience the Estuary.  This event involves the “Art for the Estuary” silent auction, an afternoon flotilla, a slough walk with Wayne White, and an early evening performance by the Kumugwe dancers at the K’omoks Band Hall and Big House.

“Every year another community group gets involved,” says Holbrook.  “I would love to see in the future Project Watershed being the organization that helps get the campaign going, but that artists, recreationists—anyone who wants to do something to contribute—can carry on.  Getting as many people involved as possible and making it a fun thing—those are really important aspects of the campaign and hopefully will survive whatever it morphs into in the future.”

Lauren LaBossiere, who works at Comox Valley Kayaks, took over the planning of the Keeping it Livingcampaign in the role of estuary coordinator when Holbrook left on maternity leave.  With her help, the idea of a flotilla across the estuary as a finale event became part of the campaign.  “My goal was to capture a larger breadth of the community: the stand-up paddlers, the kayakers, the canoeists,” says LaBossiere.  “As a person who works on and in the estuary, I thought it was a great opportunity to get involved.  There are so many businesses adjacent to the estuary—it’s part of our daily life and work.”

Different launch sites for the flotilla will take the speed of different craft into consideration.  “Dragon boats will go quickly, kayaks as well, canoes more slowly—there could be group leaders to set the pace and keep people together,” says LaBossiere, noting that Comox Valley Kayaks has more than 50 kayaks and several canoes available to rent for the flotilla on July 28.

“I’ve learned a lot about our estuary just working with Project Watershed for that time,” says LaBossiere.  “I’m able to share that with our customers, providing an opportunity to our guides to impart that knowledge. Keeping it Living has been a successful event, and I think there’s an opportunity to expand it further, be even more inclusive of the community and engage as many people as possible.”

Paul Horgen, current chair of Project Watershed, and director Betty Donaldson joined the Project Watershed board after the first event.  Donaldson, a retired professor of education, once served as president of the Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association.  She spearheaded a survey of estuary residents last fall, revealing a growing awareness about the estuary.

Horgen, a retired biology professor, attended the Estuary Working Group meetings, joined the board and contributed immediately to the campaign.

“At the time the awareness campaign was starting, I decided a way to launch it was to purchase a painting by Bev Byerley,” Horgen recalls.  The Comox Valley artist—who has entered an art submission every year—is noted for her striking paintings of the estuary.

“You can see this as a tiered event, where every year has a different layer.  Last year was information, this year is activities—to ‘Experience the Estuary’,” says Horgen.  “This year, one of the things the education committee did was the residents’ survey, which made it clear that what we’re doing can have an effect. The more we get people to interact with Project Watershed and to think about the estuary as a special place, the more it’s good for the community.”

Growing up on the San Francisco Bay estuary, Horgen was surrounded by mountains and ocean.  In 1972 he was hired as a cell and developmental biologist at the University of Toronto where he taught for 20 years, gaining an interest in molecular biology as time went on.  He ran the departmental seminar series for several years, and got interested in biotechnology. When he retired after 35 years, Horgen moved to the Valley. Although he has lost most of his eyesight, he says, “I always liked living by water with tides, and mountains—even though I can’t see them any more.”

Horgen’s golden lab guide dog Kona rests nearby, enjoying the blue sky and warm sunshine.  “If we could have weather like this for a few more months it would be perfect!”

Horgen notes that the archaeological findings of Nancy Greene and David McGee of historic fish traps in the estuary have also generated interest.  “Part of the awareness is to build up for the official launch of the bid for National Historic Site status for the estuary—the actual documentation will hopefully go in October.  That will be a focal point for future years,” he says.  “There is also the idea of some kind of interpretive centre, with the First Nations involved in that.  At some point I hope we have a facility dedicated to the natural history of the estuary and the culture that lived here.”

As a scientist, when Horgen encountered the concept of ‘Blue Carbon’, he realized the potential to link Project Watershed’s stewardship and rehabilitation efforts to wider interests.  “One approach to eliminate CO2   in the atmosphere is through Living Carbon storage,” Horgen says.  “Living Carbon is commonly thought of as Green Carbon: the long-term storage of carbon in the tissues of trees and plants in forests. Blue Carbon is Living Carbon that occurs in estuarine environments, where aquatic plants such as eelgrass and sedges store carbon in the soils and sediments below.”

“The first Keeping it Living gala event had Scott Wallace of the Suzuki Foundation as a keynote speaker,” recalls Horgen.  “He talked about putting an economic value on estuary functions, about how much more productive estuaries are on a per acre basis than just about anything else on earth.  Our regional director Jim Gillis and I then met with him, and Jim said we have this carbon offset tax that we are going to have to pay, and we should be able to use a strategy to try to keep those funds locally.  We had meetings with Regional District, planners in Comox and Courtenay, and heard a presentation about Green Carbon.  It was clear that Blue Carbon also had lots of potential.”

Horgen gathered a group of Project Watershed expertise to put together a background proposal.  In October, he made a presentation to local politicians, presenting an overview of Climate Change, carbon sequestration, and carbon offsets. He described how estuarine plant communities could remove CO2 from the atmosphere much more efficiently than land plants, and permanently.  The ‘Blue Carbon-Blue Forest Pilot Project’ could restore habitat lost during the last 75 years, which would help bring our estuary back toward its historical level of abundance, and contribute toward mitigating climate change. A resolution was pass unanimously to request that the Province of BC support this initiative through its Climate Action Charter.

The scientific concept of Blue Carbon led to the artistic theme of the ‘Blue Forest’ as the inspiration for artwork for the 2012 Keeping it Living Campaign.

“When I heard the term ‘Blue Forest’—the idea captures your imagination,” says Nancy Morrison.  “Everyone gets it—we’ve all been in the forest and we know that feeling.  The phrase takes you into the water.”

The stained-glass work that Morrison is entering for the 2012 art auction and competition is spread in curved pieces on her work table. The fluid shapes reflect the ‘Blue Forest’ of eelgrass that lies under the water of the estuary.

Other artists she has approached are similarly inspired, and local venues are receptive to displaying the artwork.  Artwork will be on display throughout July at the Gatehouse and Wandering Moose Café, Carderos, Mudsharks, Zocalo and Atlas cafés and Avenue Restaurant.

“There’s a flow to the whole campaign—the synchronicity continues,” says Morrison.

“I’m really inspired by David Bohm, the physicist. He talks about dialogue, that we all have a say—that’s also the First Nations way, where everyone has their own perspective and listens to each other.  Then from the whole group a solution arises.

“This is what a community can do, we can inspire the rest of the communities.  If we focused on taking care of the water, we would by association take care of humanity and the planet and the economy would function properly.  If we take care of the heart of our community we would create the return of abundance.  We have such a beautiful place here, and this is the incredible artwork we are producing that could attract attention.

“A lot of it comes from spending time on the estuary—as an artist I was completely inspired,” Morrison adds.  “When you love a place you want to take care of it, to keep it living, because this is where you live.”


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