This paper was prepared in 1997 and published in 2004 in Fraser River Delta, British Columbia: Issues of an Urban Estuary, (ed.)  B.J. Groulx, D.C. Mosher, J.L. Luternauer, and D.E. Bilderback. Geological Survey of Canada, Bulletin 567, 247-263.

The Evolution of Estuarine Governance in a Metropolitan Region:

Collaborating for Sustainability in the Fraser River Estuary



Anthony H.J. Dorcey

School of Community and Regional Planning &

Institute for Resources and Environment

The University of British Columbia




The Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP) is an innovative approach to collaboration in estuarine governance. Before work began on its development in 1977, federal, provincial and local government agencies acted largely independently and there was little involvement of non-governmental stakeholders. Today, FREMP facilitates coordination among the activities of more than a hundred different agencies in implementing a jointly agreed Estuary Management Plan. The goal of the Plan is to improve environmental quality in the Fraser River Estuary while providing economic development opportunities and sustaining the quality of life in and around the estuary. Implementation is through the management processes and tools that have been created by FREMP for habitat classification, area designation, project review and activity planning. Evolving FREMP has been a slow and difficult process but it has resulted in a collaborative estuarine governance model with great potential for meeting the challenges posed by a metropolitan region growing at the third highest rate in North America. Despite the development pressures, significant progress has been made towards achieving land and water objectives in the estuary. However, if FREMP is to meet the even greater challenges that are in prospect with the intensification of development in the Greater Vancouver Region, then further innovations will be necessary. Key to strengthening the Program is opening up the collaboration to non-governmental stakeholders so as to build public understanding and political commitment for achieving the sustainability goals that have been adopted in the Plan.



For more than 10 000 years people have lived, worked and played in and around the Fraser River Estuary. During the vast majority of that time, what they did had no irreversible or extensive effects on it. But, in less than two centuries, growth in population and settlement activities has transformed the estuary and delta. In the last three decades, there has been increasing concern about the impacts of this development and varied attempts have been made to manage them. This chapter describes and assesses these initiatives, focusing on the Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP) (Dorcey, 1993; Fraser River Estuary Management Program, 1994)*.

Over the almost 20-year life of FREMP, there has been substantial progress in building a new collaborative system of estuarine governance. The first half of the chapter sketches the slow evolution of these innovations, quoting from key documents to reveal how people defined the problem and evaluated alternative solutions at different points in building towards today's system. The second half of the chapter, assesses the innovative governance process that was created and its significant achievements in managing the estuary through coordinated processes for habitat classification, area designation, project review and sectoral plans for different activities. It is concluded that building such collaborative approaches to governance will almost inevitably be slow and tortuous but that they can be the wellspring for significant innovation, as evidenced by the management tools fashioned in the Fraser Estuary and now being copied elsewhere. At the same time, however, it is strange to conclude in a province where there has been such strong experimentation with multistakeholder collaboration processes, that the greatest weakness has been the timidity with which non-governmental stakeholders have been involved. It is argued that remedying this weakness in the estuarine governance system will be key in meeting the challenges of environmental, economic and social sustainability that are in prospect for a region with one of the highest growth rates in North America.

Before beginning, it is important to note that in focusing the analysis in this chapter on the collaborative approach to estuary governance, it is not being suggested that this is the only important issue to be considered in assessing the effectiveness of the governance process (Dorcey, 1991, 1993, 1997). While greater collaboration is a crucial and pervasive ingredient in the transformation of governance processes necessary to meet sustainability goals, it is only one of the elements that have been recognized as requiring greater emphasis. A more comprehensive evaluation (Dorcey, 1991) would assess progress in putting greater emphasis on

While a full analysis of each of these considerations in the evolution of the Fraser River Estuary governance system is a task for future publications, they are all at least touched upon in the current focus on collaboration.


From the beginning of history, estuaries such as the Fraser have preferentially attracted human settlements and, in recent times, major metropolises, like Greater Vancouver, increasingly bestride them. When Simon Fraser came down the river in 1808, he saw how aboriginal peoples had been living in settlements along the river and in the estuary for thousands of years. During those millennia, the population in the Lower Valley and estuary likely never exceeded 10 000 people and the largest villages were no more than 200 persons.

Only a century after Simon Fraser, any new settler would have seen that dyking and draining the wetlands for agricultural development, forestry, ports and expanding settlements had already transformed the estuary and delta. The river had been trained to flow primarily through one large main and a smaller north arm channel, three-quarters of the wetlands had been lost and already the total population had increased more than ten-fold. Meanwhile, the aboriginal populations had been cut to a quarter of what they had been at their peak and their traditional settlements were becoming lost among new waterfront developments and expanding urbanization.

Almost another century later, the new settler finds that the population has increased to 2 million and that the water and landscapes have been radically changed. Whereas the earlier settlers likely had their first glimpses of the Fraser as they arrived by sea from the west or rail from the east, today's likely fly in above it and see beneath them a sprawling metropolis wedged in between the mountains to north, east and south. If their landing approach comes down over the Lower Fraser Valley out of the east, they see the dyked Fraser clearly etched beneath them and a changing landscape, shifting as they come closer from a dominance of rural-agricultural to urban-industrial. Just before landing at Vancouver International Airport, at the sea mouth of the estuary, they might be struck by contradictory impressions of substantial pockets of wildland still remaining amongst development; extensive agriculture apparently operating amidst urban areas; old, heavy industry existing adjacent to new, low and high-rise residences on the waterfront; and deepsea container shipping navigating among fleets of fishing and recreational boats, and all, moored together with rafts of logs and floating homes, along busy waterways.

Almost any time in recent years, the new settler would not have to be in the region long before stories in the local newspapers, and on radio and television revealed that the people of Greater Vancouver are facing major challenges in the Fraser Estuary. Typical items that might soon be read or heard would suggest the bewildering diversity of issues and organizations involved:

Thus in two short centuries, the estuary and its delta have been greatly altered by an increasing diversity and intensity of settlement and development. The prospects are for this transformation to continue apace, creating new challenges for the evolving governance system.


By the early 1970s major concerns had emerged about water pollution and the loss of fish and wildlife habitats in the estuary. A proposal to expand the airport by building a new runway extending into the wetlands focused attention on those concerns as never before and led to demands for a moratorium on all development until a plan for protecting the estuary could be put into place. Although the federal and provincial governments refused to impose a moratorium, they did agree in 1977 to undertake the Fraser River Estuary Study (FRES) but it was not until after a great deal of debate about alternative governance designs that this initiative evolved into the Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP) in 1985. In the following sections, the slow and often tortuous evolution is highlighted and quotes from key documents are used to reveal the evolving perceptions of the management problem and the merits of alternative approaches to the design of the governance system. The story is complicated but an appreciation of the details is important in understanding the difficulties and the breakthroughs that are critical to identification of the lessons to be drawn from the 20 years of experience.

Fraser River Estuary Study, 1977-'78 (FRES I)

The agreement signed in 1977 by the federal Ministers of Fisheries and Environment and the provincial Minister of the Environment established the FRES "to develop a management plan which recognized the importance of the estuary both for human activities such as urban-industrial development, and for preservation of ecological integrity." The study area was to include the land and water outside of the dykes, including upland areas within approximately 1000 m of the dyke. Directed by a Steering Committee of federal and provincial agencies, four work groups were formed to prepare reports on land use, transportation and port development, water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation (Fig. 1). A report on the constitutional and legislative framework was also prepared. The work groups were made up of personnel from agencies represented on the Steering Committee and were under the general direction of a Study Coordinator. There was no special budget for the study and funds and personnel were contributed by the participating agencies. Their reports were drafted within 18 months.

Out of the Study, a clear picture of the nature of the estuary management problem emerged and the Steering Committee made far reaching recommendations on the governance system needed to meet the challenge.

The natural system of the Fraser Estuary together with extensive use by man for industrial and port development presents a highly complex and diverse situation. This complexity is echoed institutionally - with a large number of agencies, organizations and interests involved in what happens in the estuary.

The Steering Committee notes that some organizations have powerful and direct roles in estuary management. But no single agency can control the estuary. While the simple answer of a "single authority" is superficially appealing, it could not override the inherent diversity of interests and needs which exist. We are persuaded that dealing with and streamlining interjurisdictional complexity through joint consultation in developing and agreeing on a management plan as a framework for future use is a preferred approach. We believe the goal is mutual adjustment of policies and actions in accord with agreed management principles. This means explicitly agreeing upon a "negotiated order" and "linking" the separate operational plans of different agencies in a coherent way.

We also see the need for an ultimate level of decision which would be the responsibility of the elected politicians at the various levels of government. This is because value judgements will be required to resolve some issues where objective information is not adequately available.

We offer for discussion an organizational concept comprising three interacting groups:

These three parts of the total "organization" are served in ways appropriate to each by a Coordinator and a small staff group or "secretariat". The Coordinator would provide the essential liaison between groups in facilitating the plan development process which as noted must be evolved by intensive consultation on the proposed policy guidelines and to achieve linkage of separate smaller plans. It also involves working towards more formal "area designations" for various development, recreation and conservation uses along the many sections of the estuary shoreline. This Coordinator and staff secretariat are essential to complete the next phase of developing a management plan for the Fraser Estuary through extensive public participation and dialogue.


As a Steering committee, we believe an estuary management plan that collates relevant parts of the various independent "plans" of the many agencies and links them, can work and have considerable positive effect.

(Fraser River Estuary Study Steering Committee, 1978, p. xx-xxi)

Fraser River Estuary Study, 1979-'82 (FRES II)

The Federal-Provincial Phase II Agreement signed in 1979 did not implement key elements of the recommended governance innovations; provincial politicians did not want a new political body, they preferred an enhanced bureaucratic organization that would develop consensus through wide public involvement. The Phase II Agreement "instructed the Study to develop and expand the Phase I proposals through further studies and evaluations and through exploration with agencies and interested public bodies" (Fraser River Estuary Study Planning Committee, 1982, p. 37). As shown in Figure 2, political leadership and accountability remained with the Federal and Provincial Ministers of the Environment. Although they were designated as the Study Council, they performed the same highly removed role as in FRES I and the Council did not include other political representatives from senior and junior levels of government, as had been suggested in the Phase I concept of an Estuary Council. The Study Steering Committee was renamed the Planning Committee, its agency membership doubled and it evolved from being dominated by environmental agencies to reflect a mix of environmental and developmental interests. Chairmanship of the Committee remained with the provincial Ministry of Environment. Funding was provided to support an expanded role for a study coordinator and a small staff.

It is important to note, however, that this greatly expanded organisation, which significantly enlarged representation of the diversity of agency interests, lacked the ingredients for strong leadership that had been emphasized in the Phase I report. "We believe that the next phases of the Study will require stronger and more evident leadership than we, as Steering Committee, have been able to provide in Phase I" (Fraser River Estuary Study Steering Committee, 1978, p. 107). To exert this leadership the report had argued that not only should the Council have greater political representation but also it must be more active in interacting with the "policy group" and the "constituency". Recognising the constraints on holding frequent meetings of the politicians, it had been suggested that the coordinator or, preferably, the outsider who is appointed to chair the policy group, should be responsible for working with the council and providing the essential leadership.

None of these recommendations were implemented during Phase II. Chairmanship of the policy group (the Planning Committee) was not assigned to a well-known outsider and no longer was it vested in an Assistant Deputy Minister, instead it was delegated to the Regional Director of the B.C. Ministry of the Environment. The Chairmanship also was shared with a federal counterpart. The staff coordinator who was appointed was a person with less experience in such studies when compared with the coordinator in Phase I. Thus FRES II, instead of strengthening the political leadership capability, had a more diffused organization and assignment of bureaucratic leadership responsibility, and individuals appointed to these positions were more junior and less experienced in leading such studies than the Study Coordinator in Phase I. Given the diversity of interests and the complexity of the issues, the bureaucrats charged with undertaking FRES II were given an immensely difficult task by the responsible politicians.

In 1982 at the end of Phase II, a "linked management system" was proposed for the estuary. The final report analyzed three alternative approaches and recommended a hybrid. The three approaches were essentially alternative ways of organizing what Phase I called the "policy group" and the "constituency":

Alternative A: A committee approach

The Committee approach would essentially seek a voluntary consensus on an advisory management program for those government agencies involved in estuary management. Linkage would be established by agreements between key federal and provincial agencies to participate in a key agency committee made up of representatives from the estuary management level. The committee would be a forum for discussion and voluntary agreements on areas of overlap between agency responsibilities.

Improved coordination would be facilitated in each alternative by a more effective and efficient information system and referral systems.

Alternative B: A lead agency approach

The Lead Agency approach would designate certain estuary agencies to take the lead in estuary decision making. These agencies would make a mutual commitment to the estuary management program by means of interagency agreements or contracts. Agencies giving up job assignments to lead agencies would not be giving up their statutory authority and could step back in if need be. An example of a lead agency agreement now in place is the management agreements by which the B.C. Ministry of Lands, Parks and Housing transfers leasing management to the harbour commissions in areas where the river bed is provincially owned. The agreements designate one agency to manage rather than two.

Alternative C: An estuary council of governments

This approach would establish a council of Estuary Governments by intergovernmental agreement and executive orders. The council would be made up of senior officials of the governments involved. They would be delegated executive authority, consistent with prevailing statutes. The council as a whole would have the job of updating and adopting the management program, overseeing estuary management activity, as well as of preparing and making submissions to their Ministers for budget approval, funding and staffing. Existing agencies would continue to manage the estuary and would jointly staff the council. However, some reorganization of these agencies might be required to more clearly delineate which parts of their organization deal with the estuary.

(Fraser River Estuary Study Planning Committee, 1982, p. 41)


It was concluded that "a hybrid alternative is preferable, with the committee approach being employed for planning and representation and the lead agency approach for implementation" (Fraser River Estuary Study Planning Committee, 1982, p. 42). The perceived benefits of the proposed system were summarized as follows:

It addresses the major management challenges identified through our studies. It facilitates agreement on common goals and policies. It simplifies government administration and promotes better management of agency personnel, money and resources, while assuring accountability and improved information exchange. In addition, the proposal is simple to implement, as it involves existing powers of the Government of Canada and British Columbia. It succeeds because it affords a change in operating style and builds on the experience of those agencies that have been managers of the estuary. Finally, as a result of its streamlining aspects and encouragement of cooperation between the sixty to seventy agencies holding mandates in the estuary, it reduces regulation and cuts red tape.

It is important to note that the proposal presented in this report should not be underestimated because it suggests simple solutions. It is not a status quo proposal. On the contrary, it addresses an innovative and far reaching approach to "tuning-up" the processes of government decision making and resultant action while retaining flexibility. Thus it can achieve concerted actions in the interests of both environmental and economic resources of the estuary.

(Fraser River Estuary Study Planning Committee, 1982, p. 37; emphasis in original)

Thus in contrast to FRES I, changes designed to ensure more effective political leadership were not seen to be of primary importance. As the report says, the FRES II recommendations were limited to "tuning-up" the existing system.

Fraser River Estuary Study Review, 1983-'84

Although the Phase II report had been widely discussed in draft and then revised, it was decided that a Federal-Provincial Review Committee should be established to obtain further comment on the proposals and design an implementation strategy (O'Riordan and Wiebe, 1984). This step was felt to be necessary because the report did not provide a clear basis for proceeding; the proposals were extremely complex and there were doubts that it contained essential ingredients for success. The Review Committee summarized the comments they received in the following guarded terms:

Although there was general endorsement of the need for a management program, there were a number of issues which required clarification. These included the need for: broad consultation; government and industry commitment to the management process; a simplified management structure; clarification of the role of municipal and regional governments; and practical cost-effective management activities. In addition, a strong desire for meaningful action to occur as soon as possible was expressed.

(O'Riordan and Wiebe, 1984, p. 2)

In response to these concerns the Review Committee developed a revised proposal that was released in May, 1984 (Fig. 3). The proposed organisation of the management system was greatly simplified and heavy emphasis was put on the need for a sparing organization at a time of severe economic restraint. At its core would be a Management Committee. It would have a five member Executive and further 27 Members at Large drawn from the key agencies including local and regional governments and Indian Bands. There would be a two-person administrative Secretariat that supports the Management Committee and Management Program. The Management Program would have four components: an Information System, a process for Coordinated Project Review, Activity Program Work Groups and Area Planning Work Groups.

Responsibility for leadership was clearly placed in the Executive which would consist of the federal Department of the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and, the provincial Ministry of the Environment, and the two Harbour Commissions in the Fraser. The Executive would in turn be accountable to the Canada Minister of the Environment and the British Columbia Minister of the Environment. Representation of other agencies of government, regional districts, municipalities and native Indian bands was provided for by making them all members of the Management Committee that would meet as a whole twice each year.


In late 1985 the Fraser River Estuary Management Program (FREMP) agreement was signed as had been recommended and each of the five signatories agreed to contribute $50 000 each year for the next five years. The superordinate goal was "[t]o provide the means for accommodating a growing population and economy, while maintaining the quality and productivity of the Fraser estuary's natural environment". A Secretariat Office was opened in New Westminster to provide a contact point for the public and various Secretariat services including a Central Project Registry. Thus after the eight years of the Study, a "Management Program", FREMP, had been designed and put into operation under a five year agreement.

In addition, key elements of the Program had been developed and successively refined to varying degrees by working groups during the years of FRES I and II. A statement had been drafted and agreed to as a vision for the year 2002 - "A Living River by the Door". A series of general objectives had been developed and adopted to guide management of specific sets of activities. Building upon the reports produced in FRES I, eight activity program working groups and standing committees produced management plans for water quality, waste management, port and industrial development, recreation, habitat, emergencies, log storage and navigation/dredging. Beyond this, progress had also been made on what were to become central components of FREMP: the Coordinated Project Review Process and Area Designation Process including a habitat classification scheme. Each of these components of the management program are discussed in more detail in the second half of the chapter, after highlighting how FREMP has continued to evolve.

Over the last decade, FREMP has built on these foundations. At the end of the first five-year agreement in 1991 a second one, FREMP II, was signed for a further three years, the Greater Vancouver Regional District became a sixth signatory and, with a doubling of the contributions, the total budget increased to $600 000 each year. The Executive was re-named the Management Committee and was reconstituted by representatives of the six signatories. The larger Management Committee of FREMP I, ceased to exist as it was felt to be unnecessary given the other opportunities for involvement in the management program. For example, a Local Government Implementation Advisory Committee was concluded to be unnecessary when it was found they could be represented on key committees, such as Land Use and Water Quality.

The major product from FREMP II was an Integrated Management Plan for the Fraser River Estuary, finalized in 1994, and entitled "A Living Working River" (Fraser River Estuary Management Program, 1994). As the title suggests, the Plan continues to evolve the approach initiated during the FRES. The statement of Vision, Goals and Principles (Table 1) consolidates and elaborates earlier ideals and provides a framework for the more specific targets and actions in the plan. Six Action Programs which have their origins back in the reports and work groups of FRES and FREMP I are now organized under two themes: Environmental Protection consisting of Water Quality Management, and Fish and Wildlife Habitat; and Human Activities including Navigation and Dredging, Log Management, Industrial and Urban Development, and Recreation (Fig. 4).

Two key management tools developed earlier continue to have a central role in implementing the plan and evolving guidelines and policies for the estuary: the Project Review Process established in 1986 to coordinate applications for use or development in the estuary, and the Area Designation Process initiated in 1982 which identifies the primary uses for areas within the estuary (e.g., log storage, recreation, conservation, or industry), associating with them terms and conditions of use, and thus linking estuarine concerns with upland decision making. Maps provided in the plan document detail the status of the evolving designations and a Conflict Resolution Process is outlined for resolving disputes arising during implementation. Each of these management tools are discussed in more detail in the second half of this chapter while assessing the experience of building a collaborative approach to governance in the Fraser River Estuary and Delta.


The Canadian governance systems established originally could not have anticipated the challenges of estuary management that have arisen over the last two centuries. The 1867 Constitution Act allocated rights and responsibilities in ways such that all four orders of government - federal, provincial, local and First Nations - have major roles in the management of today's uses of the estuary. FRES I identified upwards of a hundred governmental and non-governmental organizations involved. Today, there are over 30 governmental agencies with jurisdiction over water quality (7 agencies), waste management (6), land use (15), water use (11) and habitat protection (5) (Table 2); and this is without examining all of their sub-divisions (e.g., there are 12 municipalities each with its own collection of departments and division of responsibilities). Finding a way to overcome the fragmented and largely ad hoc decision making among all these organizations was recognized during the first 18 months study in the 1970s as the fundamental problem in estuary governance.

The FRES I proposals were a perceptive and innovative response to the governance challenge. The critical need for leadership and ultimate political responsibility in decision making were recognized and provided for in the idea of a Council. It was to be the political mechanism for making the trade-offs that would inevitably be required in governing the estuary. It would ultimately be held accountable through the electoral process. The need to represent diverse interests was accepted and hence, the commonly suggested idea of creating a single authority was rejected. Representation in coordination and exploration of trade-offs was provided for in an explicit process of negotiation. Accountability was secured by requiring plans to be linked within a negotiated order established by the Council; as plans would be completed or revised they would be approved by the Council; and, in turn, those responsible for implementing the plans would be accountable to the Council for their performance. Finally, and perhaps of greatest significance, it was recognized that the organizational innovations must precede attempts to deal with substantive issues.

As with other proposals, this one too is offered for review and comment, but it should have high priority because some elements of organization and the required manpower and funding must be in place before the main dialogue on policy guidelines and other substantive issues can start.

(Fraser River Estuary Study Steering Committee, 1978, p. 99)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the proposal for an "Estuary council" was not taken up. Even twenty years later, there are very few examples around the world of governance institutions for managing estuaries or watersheds that are led by people elected specifically for that purpose. For the most part, politicians and their bureaucrats perceive such innovations as threatening to take away from them more than they might gain. Instead, a more limited model of collaborative governance was adopted: ultimate authority and leadership officially resides with selected federal and provincial ministers, who only become involved on a relatively few occasions; responsibility for making decisions primarily resides with a management committee of relevant bureaucrats from participating organizations; each of the participants retains all of their original jurisdiction; and, when they are unable to reach a consensus, decisions are referred for resolution to the extra-estuarine governance processes of which they are a part. In the following sections, the characteristics of this collaborative model are examined more specifically before returning in the conclusions to raise questions about the adopted model.

Goals of estuarine governance

Long before Brundtland had made popular the concept and ideal of sustainable development, the vision and goal statements for the estuary reflected concerns for both the environment and the economy:

The purpose of the study was to develop a management plan which recognized the importance of the estuary both for human activities such as urban-industrial and port development, and for preservation of ecological integrity.

(Fraser River Estuary Study Steering Committee, 1978)


To provide the means for accommodating a growing population and economy while maintaining the quality and productivity of the Fraser estuary's natural environment.

(O'Riordan and Wiebe, 1984)


To improve environmental quality in the Fraser River Estuary while providing economic development opportunities and sustaining the quality of life in and around the estuary.

(Fraser River Estuary Management Program, 1994)

While the visions and goals have remained broadly similar, there is greater comprehensiveness (Table 1) and a significantly different emphasis in the recent plan which states explicitly that "[i]mproving environmental quality is the foremost priority, recognizing the linkages among economic needs, social and cultural heritage values, and the natural resources of the estuary."

Leadership and accountability

Leadership has been primarily focused in what was the Executive Committee of the Management Committee during the first FREMP agreement and subsequently the Management Committee (hereafter referred to as "the management committee") with its members being accountable to their respective organizations. Consistent with the goals, there has always been strong governmental agency representation of environmental interests. All of the agreements have been signed by the federal Ministers of Environment, and Fisheries and Oceans, and the provincial Minister of Environment, and each of these organizations has been a member of the management committees. Although neither federal nor provincial ministers representing economic and developmental portfolios have been signatories to the agreements, there has been strong representation of such interests since the end of FRES I through the participation of the Fraser River Harbour Commission and the North Fraser River Harbour Commission, firstly as members in the Steering Committee for the FRES and then as signatories, equal financial contributors and members of the management committees from the time of the first FREMP agreement. It was not until the second FREMP agreement in 1991 that local government through the Greater Vancouver Regional District formally became one of the signatories to the agreement and hence a financial contributor and member of the management committee.

More than might at first appear, this unusual hybrid mechanism that is the management committee has been an innovative means for leading collaboration among federal, provincial and local government organizations and the harbour commissions. As the committee members have become more familiar with estuary management issues, knowledgeable about each other's organizations and interests, and built trust among themselves through working together, it has become an increasingly effective mechanism for collaboration. This began to happen even before the harbour commissions and the local governments became formal members of the committee. It has been reinforced by many of the same individuals being the representatives on the management committee for several years. Furthermore, over time it has become evident, as for example reflected in the 1994 Management Plan, that the members have greater joint interest in environmental and economic issues than might be suggested by superficially looking at their formal mandates alone.

Given the realities of demands on the time of federal and provincial ministers, local politicians and harbour commissioners, it is not surprising that the responsibilities for leadership and accountability have fallen heavily on the management committee. How well this has worked within the confines of the adopted model of governance is a question that is returned to in the conclusions after considering other key aspects of what has been achieved.

Stakeholder involvement

Under the direction of the management committee, intensive use of working committees in developing and implementing the estuarine management program has provided for extensive involvement of representatives of governmental agencies but the involvement of non-governmental organizations and the general public has been uneven and less concerted. From the beginning of the FRES and through the FREMP, working committees have been used in each of the six or seven aspects of management activity (Fig. 1-4). Over time, these committees and their various sub-committees or task groups have involved stakeholders in scoping the issues, developing possible management approaches, implementing agreements and refining them in light of experiences. Formally these groups have been constituted predominantly by governmental agencies with the notable addition of the harbour commissions. Although the groups have had the option under the public consultation policy adopted by FREMP of adding non-governmental interests to their participants, this has not been done extensively; some groups have done this more than others (e.g., land use and recreation) and others not at all (e.g., waste management).

Although there was no public involvement during FRES I, there have been varied ways in which non-governmental organizations and interests have been involved at various times during the evolution of FRES and FREMP. Public consultation exercises involving review of draft documents, workshops and opportunities for written comments have been part of the development of the two major reports, A Living River By the Door (1982) and A Living Working River (1994), and the activity program reports. On various occasions, the working committees have organized their own workshops, sometimes involving a wide diversity of interests (e.g., log handling committee) other times being more limited (e.g., the annual water quality research workshops). During two short periods, mechanisms were established for periodic consultation with a wider diversity of interests. For a time in the early 1980s, there was an attempt to use a broadly based advisory committee involving both governmental and non-governmental stakeholders under an independent chair but it proved extremely difficult to obtain consensus and was discontinued. During FREMP I the full Management Committee of 27 members provided a means for involving a wider diversity of governmental stakeholders but the full Management Committee was only convened twice a year and the various working committees were primarily used to involve these stakeholders.

The establishment of the FREMP Secretariat office in New Westminster in 1985 and its later move into a building on the redeveloped waterfront, provided a point of contact for the public to obtain reports and information. Various means have been used to communicate more widely including the production of a periodic newsletter, preparation of media packages, the provision of displays for use at the annual Fraser River Festival, conferences and in the community, the development of a schools program, and more recently a site on the World Wide Web.

Overall, the FRES and FREMP have been much more successful in securing direct and continuing involvement of governmental agencies, including the harbour commissions, than the range and diversity of non-governmental organizations and interests. In contrast to the multistakeholder processes that have become common in the 1990s in many other areas of governance in British Columbia and other parts of Canada, such as coastal zone management in Atlantic Canada, the FREMP has remained predominantly in a conservative mould, concerned primarily with fostering the coordination of government activities. More recently there have been some signs of movement towards a fuller partnership model of collaboration in the habitat restoration and enhancement programs and proposals for training citizens for clean-up tasks and reporting spills.

Collaborative management tools

Over the last decade, FRES and then FREMP have developed and refined a set of management tools that have become the ongoing means of implementing the collaborative approach to governance. The provision of funding to support a coordinator and small staff has been key in providing a secretariat that gives continuity and facilitates the involvement of a large number of part-time contributing organizations and individuals in the various working groups, committees and processes that develop and implement policies and guidelines for management of the estuary.

Policies and guidelines

As a result of the work carried out through FRES and FREMP and the independent but related development of new policies by some of the participating agencies, several sets of guidelines and policies for environmental protection have been implemented, including:

Key FREMP tools used in the implementation of these policies and guidelines are the Project Review Process and the Area Designations.

Coordinated project review

The Project Review Process, established in 1986, provides lead agencies with a single window of contact with all the agencies that are potentially concerned with an application for use or development within the estuary. Proponents deal directly with the lead agency designated for the relevant area of the estuary: Fraser River Harbour Commission, North Fraser Harbour Commission (within their respective port areas), B.C. Lands (provincial crown lands), and FREMP (private lands). Prior agreements on designated uses for areas of the estuary (discussed further below), specific terms and conditions of use, and common application forms, enable the proponent to take requirements and expectations into account in preparing a proposal. Completed applications are forwarded to the FREMP office for referral to all agencies with regulatory authority. The office maintains a Referral Log, accessible by computer, which enables agencies and the public to monitor applications, and written comments may be submitted during the response period including a request to meet with the Environmental Review Committee (ERC). This committee, consisting of representatives of Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans and the B.C. Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, reviews all the environmental referral responses and public comments and provides a coordinated environmental response. All responses and comments are returned to the Lead Agency which then issues a Decision Statement reflecting all the inputs and FREMP's environmental, economic and social objectives. Relevant leases, permits or approval documents may accompany the decision or remain to be obtained. Anyone may submit a written request for review of the decisions of the ERC or Lead Agency (see discussion below of conflict resolution process).

The progressive refinement of the overall mechanism has made the project review process increasingly predictable, effective and efficient. In 1991, the average time from signature of the application to issuance of the Decision Statement was 80 days. A high proportion of applications are approved because proposals that would not be acceptable are not likely to come forward. Growing experience and trust are leading to the development of criteria which permit Lead Agencies to make decisions without referral and to directly record their decision with the FREMP office. Likewise, criteria are being refined for determining when a project raises issues that merit more intensive examination through a task force or should be directed into a formal project review process of the federal or provincial governments.

Area designation

The other major FREMP tool is Area Designation which began during FRES II when a map was produced designating the foreshore by 85 management units. It was based on available information and judgements about best use, considering natural attributes and suitability for human activities. It was developed by a task force of 15 agencies and was reviewed by another 13 non-government agencies and 9 local governments. Through a series of extended meetings, consensus was reached on 60 of the 85 units. Categories included conservation, recreation/park, log storage, small craft moorage, industrial port/terminal. The remaining 25 units were put into an "Undetermined Use" category. Although the map had no formal status it began to be widely used by management agencies and developers.

Review and refinement of these designations has been ongoing under FREMP and has included four significant adaptations:

  1. A statement of intent is signed by the parties at interest so as to secure more formal commitment to the designations and reduce uncertainty. While this is not a legal contract it gives the agreements much more substance.
  2. Multiple use designations are considered to reduce conflicts associated with the initial single use designations. By designating one use as primary and another as secondary (e.g., log booming is permitted in the foreshore waters as long as it does not interfere with the conservation designation of the shoreline), it is considerably easier to reach consensus.
  3. By implementing the process separately with each municipality, the process is eased by having fewer parties directly involved. The process has been chaired by the FREMP Coordinator and involves intensive meetings and review of draft agreements by other interested agencies and the public.
  4. The addition of a process for reviewing designations when requested by agencies has made them more willing to make commitments. Agreement has been further eased by adjusting management unit boundaries, some revision of categories, the improving information base as a result of other activities, and the growing experience and familiarity of those involved.

The 1994 Plan indicates that Burnaby and Richmond have Area Designation Agreements in place and other municipalities are working on them. Generally the area designation map is based on current uses and is not a long range plan per se. However, there are believed to be good possibilities for resultant foreshore uses to be compatible with and influential on upland zoning and official community plan designations. For example, Surrey has incorporated the designations into its Official Community Plan (OCP) thus making the designations meaningful above the high water mark and putting them into the regular cycle of update and review of their OCP. The Area Designation Agreements are still considered useful but are being developed more slowly because of the heavy time demands they place on contributing agencies.

Conflict resolution

A fourth key management tool is the Conflict Resolution Process laid out in the 1994 Plan. Drawing on principles of consensus based decision making, reflecting those recommended by the B.C. Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a voluntary process is provided for seeking resolution of conflicts arising in management. The process provides for FREMP to convene the interested parties, including non-governmental interests where this is judged appropriate; provide for a mediator if necessary; and engage in identifying issues and options for meeting interests within the goals and guiding principles of the Estuary Management Plan. If the parties cannot reach consensus then the Management Committee prepares a report on the deliberations, which is forwarded to the agencies with the jurisdiction and authority to make a decision and, if required, the decision will ultimately be made through the political or judicial system.

Funding and resources

Under the FREMP agreements funding commitments increased from $250 000 each year for FREMP I to $600 000 each year for FREMP II. While these funds support the direct activities of the FREMP secretariat, it is important to recognize that the vast majority of the funding and resources that are devoted to estuary management are provided directly through the programs of the wide variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations that are active in the estuary. Nobody knows how much this adds up to because such accounting is never done but, without a doubt, the FREMP funds are less than 1% of the total capital and operating expenditures related to estuary management.


Arguably, estuaries such as the Fraser present the greatest governance challenges on the planet in the intensity of settlement and development they attract, the diversity of interests involved, and the uncertainties surrounding interactions of their natural and human systems. Governing such highly complex systems is still more art than science and often only an infant art. Learning from the evolving approaches to governance in the Fraser River Estuary, building on strengths and remedying weaknesses, is crucial for meeting the challenges in prospect.

Good fortune but....

Over the last two decades, good fortune has in many important ways made governance of the Fraser River Estuary relatively easy. At the time of the FRES I report it was recognized that despite the history and extent of development, in a broad sense, the supply of natural resources still considerably exceeded demands in the estuary. In particular, there were substantial areas of the estuary that had not yet been developed or committed. In addition, the enormous size of the flow through the mainstem of the river meant that it was remarkably forgiving of waste discharges and run-off from upstream and the growing metropolis. Over the intervening years, there fortunately has not been a spring freshet big enough to seriously threaten the settlements and developments behind the dykes. Nor have any of the seismic events been of a magnitude to have any significant impacts in the delta. Economic forces too have been benevolent in facilitating the transition of major parts of the shoreline out of old port and industrial uses and into new residential and commercial developments. In addition, the availability of shoreland, development of new technology and expanding import and export demands, have enabled the ports to grow and flourish. At the same time, it has been possible to increase the number of parks and establish linear connections between green spaces. In many ways, the times have been good and time has so far been on the side of the evolving governance system.

But, at the same time, growth in population, settlement and development has been enormous and, despite what has been achieved by management efforts, the degrees of freedom for the governors have declined significantly. Information developed by the FRES and FREMP working groups and associated governance processes, shows the relentlessly increasing development pressures and the environmental, economic and social consequences, and implications of these in the region, delta and estuary (as discussed in detail in other chapters). For example:

Thus from today's perspective, while good fortune and a degree of ignorance have made estuary governance relatively easy during much of its first 20 years of evolution, it appears the years ahead are going to be a great deal more difficult now that the excess supply has been substantially reduced, and particularly with the prospects for some of the highest rates of growth in North America.

Good collaboration but...

Over the last two decades there has been increasing collaboration among the many organizations involved in governance of the estuary. Through FRES and more recently FREMP there has been significant progress in building an orderly management system to replace what had previously been a largely ad hoc decision making process among more than a hundred organizations. The 1994 Estuary Management Plan reflects the progress in developing coordinated procedures for project review and area designation, management policies and guidelines, and standardized databases, and it lays out the next steps for their implementation and further development.

In addition, during the 1990s there have also been several other major collaborative governance initiatives that have begun to build a larger policy context and regional governance system to complement the specific focus of FREMP on the wetside of the estuarine dykes.

But, despite the progress that has been made in developing collaboration in and around the estuary, three major problems have continuously undermined the recognition of FREMP's progress and its credibility. Firstly, despite all the work that has been done and the very large number of reports that have been produced, there has continued to be great uncertainty about the environmental and economic state of the estuary. Many reports have been produced but many of them are highly technical and specific. Often results of the studies have been inconclusive, in part, reflecting the dynamism and variability inherent in natural and social systems, particularly those associated with estuaries. In general there has been much more information developed about the bio-physical than socio-economic systems in the estuary, and it has been more difficult to relate the socio-economic systems data to the estuary specifically. Integrative and summary reports have been relatively infrequent and the lack of specific targets and monitoring have not clearly demonstrated FREMP's achievements.

A second problem has been the general slowness in producing results. The one possible exception to this was FRES I, which was relatively productive during its short 18 month life. Since then progress has been more drawn out and there have been particularly slow periods between phases. The Review after FRES II, expressed people's demands for quicker action. The reports at the end of FREMP I and the Management Plan at the end of FREMP II, show the gradual progress in evolving the governance system and the products from the various working groups but at the same time reveal the slow advancement in key areas such as in developing a water quality management plan and completing negotiations with municipalities on Area Designation Agreements for their waterfront areas.

A third problem is the generally limited visibility of FREMP and associated lack of recognition of its achievements outside of the organizations and individuals directly involved. Several factors have contributed to this problem including the fact that FREMP does not have high profile people associated with it, does not spend large amounts of money, and does not have authority of its own. Further, major estuary management issues in the public eye, such as the sewage treatment plants, fishery and flood plain management, are largely outside of its areas of activity. The vast amount of its work has been done behind the scenes and involved relatively few stakeholders. In the earlier years, the initiative did not make the efforts at communication and education that it has done in more recent times. Unfortunately the task of developing a clearer understanding of the role and achievements of FREMP has become a great deal more difficult in the 1990s by the confusing proliferation of many new initiatives (Livable Region, FRAP, BIEAP, FBMP, Georgia Basin Initiative).

Good governance but...

When compared with other estuarine governance systems operating around the world, the evolving system in the Fraser has received high marks, as illustrated by a review of experience in OECD countries (Dorcey, 1993). Further, the general model piloted in the Fraser is influencing approaches in not only other parts of British Columbia but also other parts of the world, such as the Brisbane River Estuary in Queensland. It is important to appreciate how difficult estuary governance is and that the FREMP's performance needs to be compared with what has been achieved in practice elsewhere and not just theoretical ideals. For those who are close to the Fraser and understandably preoccupied with immediate concerns, there is a tendency to lose sight of the achievements over the last two decades and this broader perspective. The governance model adopted after FRES I has been progressively developed and implemented through the design and refinement of innovative procedures for coordinated decision making on project reviews and area designations. Gradual progress has been made from the general statement of goals towards more specific objectives and targets with agreements on policies and guidelines. There is a great deal more information readily available today about the bio-physical and socio-economic systems of the Fraser River Estuary than was the case when FRES was getting started in 1977.

But, without taking anything away from what has been achieved, there must be questions about how well the evolving governance system is equipped for the challenges in prospect with increasing and diversifying demands on the estuarine resources. The debilitating weaknesses of uncertainty about the state of the estuary, slow delivery and lack of recognition of FREMP will continue unless their fundamental causes are mitigated. Further, there is a sense that the challenges of estuarine governance are increasing faster than the capabilities to deal with them. Difficulties that the evolving governance system has encountered throughout the last two decades are likely to get worse. Chief among these are two that will exasperate each other: decreasing governmental funding and resources, and increasing needs for collaboration among all interests in sustainability.

To meet these challenges the governance system will have to evolve in some significantly different ways beyond what has been built so far (Dorcey, 1991). The key requirement is much greater involvement of non-governmental stakeholders so as to build understanding and commitment and through partnerships generate new management resources not only for what is done by FREMP but by all the associated initiatives in the estuary, delta and region. This implies an accelerated shift away from the conservative attitudes on public involvement that have predominated in FREMP, towards much greater emphasis on catalysing and facilitating the involvement of non-governmental stakeholders, as has begun to happen in many other initiatives in British Columbia in recent years, such as those associated with land use planning processes, watershed round tables and stewardship initiatives (Dorcey, 1997). This can be done in ways such that governmental agencies continue to retain their ultimate decision making authority but move towards sharing the responsibilities for management and stewardship in the estuary. Specifically, consideration needs to be given to the ways in which non-governmental stakeholders might become direct participants in the various committees and working groups of FREMP.

Nobody would claim that such new ways of doing business will be easy (Dorcey, 1991, 1997). Most would admit that the various experiments with greater involvement of non-governmental stakeholders have had mixed success so far as people struggle to learn how these new forms of governance can be made to work productively. Just as has been the experience of the governmental organizations that have been part of the FRES and FREMP experiments to date, it will take time to build the understanding and trust that is essential to a productive relationship. But increasingly, people are recognizing that there is no alternative than to begin working together in new multistakeholder processes because governments cannot do it alone. In the making is a transformation of what has been the dominant Canadian model of governance. Interestingly, it begins to look a lot like the collaborative estuarine governance model that was proposed and rejected at the end of FRES I!


I am most grateful to Kevin McNaney for his research assistance and to Marion Adair, Michael McPhee and the editors for their most constructive comments on a first draft. However, responsibility for the content of the final chapter rests entirely with the author.


*Except where otherwise noted, the chapter is based on two basic sources which contain more detailed analysis and references: (Dorcey, 1993) and (Fraser River Estuary Management Program, 1994). Current and extensive information on the key programs that are mentioned in the chapter can be found on the World Wide Web:

Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program

Fraser Basin Management Board and Program

Fraser River Action Plan - Environment Canada & Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Fraser River Estuary Management Program

Livable Region Strategic Plan - Greater Vancouver Regional District


Dorcey, A.H.J. 1991. "Towards agreement on water management: An evolving sustainable development model," in Dorcey, A.H.J. (ed.) Perspectives on Sustainable Development in Water Management: Towards Agreement in the Fraser River Basin. Vancouver: Westwater Research Centre, The University of British Columbia.

Dorcey, A.H.J. 1993. Sustainable Development of the Fraser River Estuary: Success Amidst Failure. In Coastal Zone Management. Paris: OECD.

Dorcey, A.H.J. 1997. "Collaborating towards sustainability together: The Fraser Basin Management Board and Program," in Mitchell, B. and Shrubsole, D. (ed.) Sustainable Water Management: Canadian and International Experiences. Cambridge, Ontario: Canadian Water Resources Association.

Fraser River Estuary Management Program. 1994. A Living Working River: An Estuary Management Plan for the Fraser River. New Westminster: Fraser River Estuary Management Program.

Fraser River Estuary Study Planning Committee. 1982. A Living River by the Door. Proposed Management Program for the Fraser River Estuary. Surrey: Fraser River Estuary Study.

Fraser River Estuary Study Steering Committee. 1978. Fraser River Estuary Study Summary: Proposals for the Development of an Estuary Management Plan. Victoria.

O'Riordan J. and Wiebe J. 1984. An Implementation Strategy for the Fraser River Estuary Strategy Management Program. Victoria: B.C. Ministry of Environment.