About 1,000 chinook died during recent Cowichan River drought crisis

Recent rains have upped Cowichan River flow to expected October levels. -
Recent rains have upped Cowichan River flow to expected October levels.
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About 1,000 chinook salmon died needlessly during this year's drought, a member of the river conservation group One Cowichan says.

Parker Jefferson said that kill could have been prevented had Victoria acted on Cowichan requests in May to allow water storage in Cowichan Lake, then slake the spawning river during fall low-flows.

"We'll ensure this doesn't happen again," he vowed.

Preventing a repeat of this year's chinook carnage is the topic of Thursday's big, public-stakeholder huddle at Duncan's Quw'ut'sun Cultural Centre.

"We lost about 1,000 chinook because of how many we've tallied up," he said, noting a three-day lake-pulse release, and stewards' trap-and-truck action, saved some chinook.

That blitz happened before recent storms dropped tons of water — too late to help this year's run.

"Last year, we counted about 3,700 total. This year it was 4,000 but it could have been 5,000," Jefferson said.

"If they'd held that water back, they could have had seven cubic metres per second all summer and fall. That would be adequate to get the chinook upstream."

Despite local fish-rescue efforts, a dry river stopped chinook from swimming upstream to spawn.

Those fish likely got too ripe waiting to spawn at October's end.

"Many probably spawned in the lower part of the river, but they'll be over-spawned by the chum, estimated at about 160,000," he explained.

"In Cowichan Bay, seals also got (chinook) in a pre-season mortality, which isn't good — they died before they got a chance to spawn."

As an official salmon-indicator river, the Cowichan's fish figures are recorded regularly.

An Oct. 9 to 12 pulse-release at the lake's weir pumped levels to about 15 cm/sec but they were at five cm/sec for the latter part of the summer.

"From Oct. 18 to today, it's crept to 20 cm/sec. We're getting pretty close to where it should be; there's plenty of water."

Locals aim to head-off yo-yo flows next year by talking with the province now.

"That's unanimous by all groups, including Cowichan Tribes, (B.C. river-flow licence holder) Catalyst, and the CVRD.

"How we achieve that objective will be determined over the winter."

One Cowichan hopes to convince forests-and-lands minister Steven Thomson "the province has the authority, resources and financial means to manage our water resources."

"They've suggested the Cowichan Valley Regional District should take out a water licence — we view this as a bureaucratic-delay tactic.

"The CVRD's considering this, but there's no funding to manage the licence," he explained.

"We're telling the province it should take out the licence, not the CVRD."

That conservation-water licence dictates managing the heritage river's water levels for salmon migration.

"Ideally, locals should manage (flows and lake storage) but as pragmatic people we realize that would be precedence-setting and could take a long time to accomplish.

"We're moving toward that objective, but for next year we need something to happen."

Enter Tribes' Chief Harvey Alphonse, former federal environment minister David Anderson, CVRD chairman Rob Hutchins, Catalyst's Rob Belanger — plus federal Fisheries and provincial forests-and-lands folks — all expected at tomorrow's 7 p.m. gathering.

"May or June is when you have to start thinking about how much water to hold back," Jefferson said.

"You start controls in June when there's more water available. We hope they do something by spring.

"We're not taking about raising the weir, just storing more water over the summer."

Idea is to store spring run-off longer in the lake, not to raise lake levels and flood lakefront properties.

"We hope (lake) property owners show up so they can start to understand we don't want to flood them out," said Jefferson.

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