Cowichan: A river in crisis

CHEK cameraman Kendall Hanson inspects the Cowichan Lake weir during a media tour organized by the Cowichan Watershed board Sunday. - Peter W. Rusland
CHEK cameraman Kendall Hanson inspects the Cowichan Lake weir during a media tour organized by the Cowichan Watershed board Sunday.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland

Late-August sun cooks a drying Cowichan River as tubers merrily make ready for a float downriver Sunday from near Cowichan Lake's weir.

That weir controls very pinched water flows, a crisis that could eventually cause a temporary closure of Catalyst's Crofton pulp mill, Cowichan's largest employer and taxpayer.

"It's an historic low lake and river level," said mill manager Rob Belanger, who sounded ready to do a rain dance.

"By mid-October, if there's no rain we'll be in a tough situation," he said of water needed for heating and cooling his operation with 575 workers on its payroll.

"We have to conserve water to keep flows (to the mill) at a minimum for as long as we can."

Catalyst's brass will follow any government orders about river flows and mill closures, he explained, but "we're focusing all our energies to stay away from those (possibilities)."

Experts basically blame the tight tap on a shrivelled winter snowpack, and lack of spring rain.

Rodger Hunter of the Cowichan Watershed Society, and Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest helped lead a media tour of the situation Sunday. They cheered Catalyst's weir for storing lake water and saving our heritage river from going bone dry — while baking fish habitat.

Watergeddon, and a possible mill closure, weighed heavily on their minds — and that of Belanger.

He said the current volume the mill is taking out of the river is about 1.7 cubic metres per second. The mill’s permit stipulates a minimum flow of 7 CMS be maintained in the river unless directed by the provincial water controller. Because of the drought, the controller has lowered the minimum flow to 4.5 CMS.

"The lake's at an all-time low. I get the sense if you don't have the water," forecasted Forrest, "the mill will have no choice (but to close).

"If we didn't have Catalyst controlling this weir right now, we wouldn't have what do have. There's no drop-dead deadline."

Hunter agreed, but said we could have a real crisis in a month, as he walked near theStoltz Bluff remediation site keeping silt from the river.

"If it doesn't rain by November, we'll have a trickle."

With that trickle, say good-bye to the river's run of chinook and other fish.

"In the Cowichan watershed, we've got problems, but for every problem there's a solution," said Hunter, urging provincial and federal governments to let local stakeholders — including Cowichan Tribes and Catalyst — raise the weir and store more lake water for when it's needed.

"It's important higher levels of government start paying attention," stated Forrest.

While valley stakeholders await a decision about allowing local more flow controls, the mill and Cowichanians are taking water conservation action.

For example, the mill gave $25,000 to the Cowichan Watershed board to help fund salmon trucking upstream to spawn, if necessary.

Tonnes of gravel were also dredged from the river this spring, near the black bridge, to help guide flows, Hunter explained.

Meanwhile, mill workers' ideas about using less water and re-using more are also being followed, Belanger explained.

"We're using river water as many times as we can before it's finally cleaned and discharged."

Ocean water is also being too, where possible, at the mill which has  had permits to tap the river since 1957.

River water is also tapped for sewage dilution by the Joint Utilities Board's treatment lagoons off Tzouhalem Road, noted Hunter — volumes now at risk by the drying river.

Forrest was proud of Lake Cowichan's conservation efforts including riparian-vegetation conservation programs with Cowichan Tribes.

He was upbeat about lake and river fish health improving as temperatures seemed to be dropping.

Belanger was satisfied all concerned parties are at weekly talks about the troubled river.

"There could be (use) changes in the future. Whether there's more local control or government control (of flow rates), it's most appropriate to have everyone at the table."

Meanwhile, the watershed society has invited various politicians, including forests minister Steve Thomson, to tour the ailing river for a first-hand view of the crisis.

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