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Planned breach of Cowichan Bay causeway planned for late July

The causeway leading from the Cowichan Estuary to the Westcan Terminals in Cowichan Bay may be opened in order to improve the ecological health of Cowichan Bay. - John McKinley/file
The causeway leading from the Cowichan Estuary to the Westcan Terminals in Cowichan Bay may be opened in order to improve the ecological health of Cowichan Bay.
— image credit: John McKinley/file

Breaching a causeway in Cowichan Bay to give spawning fish and wildlife more habitat could happen as early as late July.

Geotz Schuerholz, chairman of the Cowichan Estuary Restoration & Conservation Association, explained his group has most of the money and most permits to commission yanking about 45 feet of Westcan Terminals' causeway.

It leads to Western Stevedoring's dormant site, and an old dock bordering the bay.

The idea surrounds giving far more Cowichan River salmon a fighting chance for survival.

By cutting the solid causeway, fish headed back to salt water — via the river north of the causeway — can reach the bay's healthy southern-sector eelgrass beds for food and predator shelter.

Cowichan Land Trust members have planted new eelgrass on the estuary's south side, where Schuerholz hopes more fish reach through the breach.

"It's an artificial dike," he said of the road-causeway. "We'd breach that dike by about 45 feet; the opening would be about 36 feet."

A double-lane bridge would be built over the gap. Geotechnical survey results show solid gravel deposits at the breach side, which facilitates the design of the bridge's superstructure.

CERCA's project has $100,000 from the Southern Pacific Salmon Commission Fund. It has also applied to Fisheries for $30,000 from the river's Sandy Pools project, in efforts to help estuary fish and wildlife.

"Anything would be better than what we have now," Schuerholz said.

Currently, there's little to no eelgrass left in the bay's northern area due to log scouring, Schuerholz said.

"Twenty (north bay) hectares of eelgrass have been taken out of production. It's been wiped out due to log transport over the years," said the respected wildlife ecologist and consultant.

That leaves salmon searching for scarce habitat in the bay's southern end during spawning season.

"There's been no circulation between the north and south sides for 50 years. We want to get spawn in the south side's eelgrass for a much higher survival rate, and it will dramatically enhance the spawn," he said.

More circulation will also create better habitat for the struggling estuary's complex web of marine critters, Schuerholz noted.

CERCA has a federal Fisheries' permit for the causeway work. Permits are still needed from the Cowichan Valley Regional District, B.C. Crown lands, and BC Hydro has to readjust a causeway power line.

"The province wants an estuary (alteration) application from the lease holder, Tidal Harmony Holdings, which is defunct. It doesn't make any sense," he said.

Technically, the causeway road sits on Crown land leased to Tidal Harmony Holdings. The causeway ends at an old dock formerly owned by the CNR. It reverted to Crown land, and was sub-leased to Western Stevedoring. That lease expired in 2009, he said.

The group also wants to pull derelict logs from the estuary's Mariner's Island, just north of the river, and return it to fish and wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile, given lapsed leases, and most of the money in place, CERCA members are optimistic their planned breach will reach reality this summer.

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