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River slowed to conserve water

The Cowichan River flow is down to seven cubic metres per second, the minimum summer flow, and half what it typically is at this time of year. - John McKinley/file
The Cowichan River flow is down to seven cubic metres per second, the minimum summer flow, and half what it typically is at this time of year.
— image credit: John McKinley/file

The water situation in the Cowichan region is grave, said Rob Hutchins, Cowichan Watershed Board co-chair.

The combination of a dry spring and low snow pack has resulted in Cowichan Lake being almost 40 centimetres lower than it normally is at this time of year.

Locals were put on stage two water restrictions earlier this month and the area’s largest water user, Catalyst Paper, reduced the Cowichan River’s flow from the seven cubic metres per second permitted in its license to five in an effort to make the water stored behind the weir last until the fall rains.

“Reducing the flow from seven to five buys us 30 extra days (of water) in the lake,” Catalyst’s GM Rob Belanger said, while adding the reduction won’t impact mill operations.

Rodger Hunter, co-ordinator for the CWB said the good news is that all the partners who can do anything about the situation are working together.

“So many people know and care about this watershed...and they should,” Hunter said.

Catalyst hosts weekly calls with representatives from the Cowichan Tribes, the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the CWB and various stewardship groups to monitor the situation, he added.

The situation is worse than in 2003, Hunter said, in that it wasn’t until late August, not mid-July, when Catalyst reduced the river’s flow to five.

“We’re well in advance of previous years,” he said.

The Cowichan Watershed Board was established in 2010 to implement the Cowichan Basin Water Management Plan for the Cowichan watershed.

Actions that have been taken to date:

• Catalyst asked its 600 employees for suggestions on conserving water;

• Fisheries and Oceans Canada is prepared, with Cowichan Tribes, to truck chinook salmon to spawning grounds if needed;

• Island Health is increasing water quality monitoring

• Stewardship groups have moved stranded juvenile fish from side channels and pools to the main part of the river and increased public education initiatives.

• The province co-ordinated a provincial government drought planning session earlier this month.

Despite the proactive measures, Hunter said a number of concerns continue. They include:

• Water quality, particularly in the area below the Joint Utility Board sewage lagoons;

• Damage to fish populations, including stranding, habitat loss, temperature stress and the fall loss of adult chinook salmon due to inadequate river flows and seal predation;

• The inability of the Cowichan Tribes to use fish for ceremonial, food and cultural reasons;

• Economic impacts to Catalyst, as well as to the area in reduced recreational opportunities and longer term impacts on commercial and sport fisheries.

Next steps could include:

• Continued monitoring of water levels and water quality;

• Exploring other options, including placing pumps in Lake Cowichan and pumping water over the weir and reducing the water’s flow from five to four and a half.

“I’m worried but also confident; there are lots of people here in the Cowichan Valley who care about the situation who are used to working together, to ensure the best possible outcome,” Hunter said. “We have the right people who will do their best.”

“The valuable thing about this drought is that it will promote water literacy,” he said. “With climate change, that’s an important body of knowledge.”

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