Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society



Riparian Zone and Regulations

The focus of the following information is on what individual waterfront property owners can do to be stewards of their own land and help to protect the watershed. It does not address commercial, industrial, agricultural, or forestry use of land.

What is the riparian zone?

Why is the riparian zone important?

What can individual property owners do to maintain the riparian zone?

What is riparian areas regulation (RAR)?

How is the RAR applied locally, in particular, on the Cowichan lake and river?




Riparian Zone Defined

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The natural shoreline has four components, beginning underwater and extending upland - the aquatic zone, the shoreline, the riparian zone, and the upland zone. The riparian zone is the section of land closest to the shoreline – it serves as a buffer between the water and the land. Ideally, it includes vegetation that normally grows in the area – trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses, and other plants.


Importance of Riparian Zone

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  • Erosion control: The roots of plants growing along the lake shore provide stability and collect sediment, thus preventing shorelines from being washed away.
  • Water quality: The plants in the riparian zone help to filter and purify water for drinking and recreation. The thick layer of low foliage sifts out impurities from surface run-off.
  • Water storage: Vegetation and soils soak up and store water during high rainfall events and help to prevent flooding. Leaves and branches break the force of falling rain and the rough surface of leaf litter, pine needles and broken twigs slows the water which is then absorbed by the soil and taken up by plant roots.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions: Trees and other vegetation in riparian areas help to regulate greenhouse gases by taking up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen by the process of photosynthesis.
  • Biodiversity: Healthy riparian zones provide habitat for a huge array of plants and wildlife - small aquatic animal, fish, birds, and mammals.
  • Healthy fish habitat: The aquatic and riparian areas are crucial for fish, providing them with food and shelter as well as shade to keep the water cool.


Responsibility of Individual Property Owners

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Looking after the shoreline vegetation is the single most important thing waterfront property owners can do to help keep the watershed healthy. Leaving as much upland vegetation as possible is also wise.
Leaving riparian plants in place maintains a buffer of native vegetation along the shoreline. Allowing natural vegetation to grow and re-establishing native plants will help to restore the buffer if it is damaged. However, preventing damage is easier than remediation. Neighbours need to cooperate to maintain the riparian zone - fish and wildlife don’t recognize property boundaries!


Riparian Areas Regulation (RAR)?

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The Riparian Areas Regulation (RAR) is provincial legislation that came into effect in 2006. It is meant to encourage responsible development and avoid the degradation of valuable riparian fish habitat. RAR satisfies the requirements of the Federal Fisheries Act for fish habitat protection.
Land developers and individual property owners are required to hire a qualified environmental professional (QEP) to assess habitat and potential impacts, develop mitigation measures and avoid impacts of development to fish and fish habitat, particularly riparian habitat. The Riparian Areas Regulation applies only to local governments located in Southwestern BC and the Southern Interior as these are the regions that are experiencing the most rapid urban growth. The regulation does not apply to agriculture, mining or forestry related land uses. More information about the legislation can be found at:


Local Application of the RAR

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Local governments must ensure that their bylaws and permits provide a level of protection that is comparable to or exceeds that of the RAR. The town of Lake Cowichan has adopted the provincial RAR regulations directly. Policy 15 in the Official Community Plan (OCP) of Area F and Section 13 in that of Area I relate to the provincial riparian areas regulation.
These bylaws list the following ten activities that require application for a development permit and a report from a QEP:

  • removal, alteration, disruption, or destruction of vegetation;
  • disturbance of soils;
  • creation of non-structural impervious or semi-impervious surfaces;
  • flood protection works;
  • construction of roads, trails, docks, retaining walls, wharves, and bridges;
  • provision and maintenance of sewer and water services;
  • development of drainage systems;
  • development of utility corridors
  • sub-division as defined in section 872 of the Local Government Act.

In practice, the property owner submits a development proposal and the QEP submits an assessment report to the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. MOE then notifies the local government (Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) for Areas F and I) that the riparian assessment has been done and that the development proposal does not violate the RAR. Only Fisheries and Oceans can authorize a project that will result in harmful alteration disruption or destruction of fish habitat.

The OCPs for Areas F and I may be found at

Because Area I is targeted for major development (Woodland Shores and Youbou Lands) the OCP addresses additional concerns and values. The general guidelines of section 13.6 must be met when the landowner applies to the CVRD for a development permit. The guidelines recommend reducing areas of impervious surfaces and retaining trees and vegetative cover as well as pruning trees and shrubs to enhance views rather than removing them. The guidelines also specify techniques for storm water management and criteria for roads, driveways, and paths to the shore. Cultural and heritage features must be left undisturbed. When applying to the CVRD for a development permit the onus is on the applicant to demonstrate that encroaching into the riparian area is necessary due to topography, hazards, or lack of alternative developable land, and every effort must be made to minimize adverse impacts.

By being responsible stewards of their own land, waterfront property owners can help protect the Cowichan Lake Watershed. This will ensure the preservation, for everyone’s enjoyment, of the very special environment that motivated their purchase in the first place.

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Last updated: 09/10/18.