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Cowichan River about to tap out

Current flow levels have some wondering if there will be any need for hip-waders in the Cowichan River
Current flow levels have some wondering if there will be any need for hip-waders in the Cowichan River's future, or any fish to hook.
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Rain dances are being urged now by Cowichan River watchers.

Without rain, this year’s salmon run, and fry from other species, could die by fall.

“Is there cause to be concerned? You’re darned right!” said Paul Rickard, senior member of the Cowichan Stewardship Round Table.

He cited the 2003 drought as disastrous for Cowichan’s fish.

“2003 was bad, and it’s worse than that now,” Rickard said of the river that’s nearly dry and down to seven cubic metres per second — the minimum legal summer flow allowed by the province. “The only tool we have is river-flow rate.”

That rate — controlled by the Lake Cowichan’s weir — will be debated again today (June 25) by an ad-hoc river-flow committee, helmed by Catalyst’s Brian Houle.

Stakeholders will look at lake and river levels, expected summer rainfall and other factors affecting flow rates needed for fish, and Catalyst’s Crofton pulp mill. Once stakeholders reach a consensus on a flow-rate action plan, they still need nods from Ministry of Forests brass to bend the river’s mandated flow rule curve level.

“Ministry guys seldom take part in these discussions,” said Parker Jefferson of One Cowichan. “If we decide as a community to be proactive, we can’t do anything without approval from these guys who haven’t been there to hear our concerns and the technical issues we’re facing.”

Rickard said the river would normally be at 15 CMS, “and there’s some risk to lowering it for emerging late-spawning coho fry, and resident rainbow and brown trout, and steelhead.”

But dire decisions are needed fast.

“We may have to restrict the river flow over this summer to make sure we have enough for fall,” said Jefferson. “All we can do is pray for rain. Climate change is coming really quickly and that is evident here. We’re down by about 35% of summer rain since the ‘70s.”

“Chinook are first to spawn,” explained Rickard. “They start to get up the river in the first week of September. That’s crunch time for chinook, especially with hungry seals out in Cowichan Bay.”

He and Jefferson remembered the 2003, 2006 and 2012 droughts when salmon were trucked upstream to spawn — crises that hatched local folks’ demands for more flow release control from Victoria.

“This year we don’t have the water to dump in. We’re well below the top of the weir,” said Jefferson.

“In the past 30 years, water input into Cowichan Lake has declined by 20% to 30 %,” added Rickard. “now packs have been lighter than usual for the past 10 years, and haven’t lasted as long.

“We do get heavy rains with pineapple expresses, and short periods of rain during the winter, but not summer top ups.”

Rickard noted about two-dozen lake landowners appealed to Victoria against allowing a month’s longer storage, but that appeal failed.

“Given all of this (drought), and the regular occurrence of it, is it time to look at storing more water in Lake Cowichan?”

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