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Water storage changes considered for Cowichan weir

Cowichan residents are meeting with government officials today in an effort to come up with a plan to improve flows in the Cowichan River.
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Low water levels beneath the Catalyst Paper-operated weir at Cowichan Lake left chinook salmon unable to swim to spawning grounds in 2012.

Cowichan residents are meeting with government officials today in an effort to come up with a plan to improve flows in the Cowichan River.

The aim is to avert a crisis like the one that occurred last year, when low water levels left chinook salmon stuck in the estuary — where they were easy dinner for hungry sea lions — and unable to swim to spawning grounds.

In fall, the river almost ran dry and salmon had to be trucked upstream.

Local frustrations grew as the provincial government insisted on sticking to strict rules governing the amount of water held back by a weir at the junction of Cowichan Lake and the Cowichan River, where the water licence is held by Catalyst Paper. Because of those rules, water spilled over the weir, instead of being stored, until August.

The man trying to find a balance at today’s meeting is Bryan Symonds, deputy comptroller of water rights for the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Ministry.

“I will be the person who makes the decision,” he said.

“Last year there was some concern about the flows in the Cowichan River and the impact that was having on chinook, so we’re taking a look at changing the way it’s operated.”

Two options are being considered, Symonds said.

The first would see Cowichan Lake water levels held at 20 centimetres above the current June and July levels, at the top of the weir, until July 9, when water releases would start.

The second option would be to leave the storage levels as they are and delay the lake drawdown until the end of July.

“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has a desire to see additional storage, but there may be those who have a different opinion,” Symonds said.

Some lakefront property owners are concerned about loss of beachfront if lake levels rise.

Written comments on the proposed changes will be accepted until April 5 and a decision is likely in early May.

The process will allow people to give their opinions, said Symonds, who said he does not currently have a preference.

However, the province is not prepared to take out a water storage licence, a bone of contention last year.

Cowichan Valley Regional District and other groups say water flow is a conservation issue and should be the responsibility of the province.

“The province has been very clear we are not looking at taking out a licence. We don’t typically do that,” Symonds said.

Catalyst has said it is not willing to take out another storage licence, and no applications have yet been received from other groups, Symonds said.

Rodger Hunter, Cowichan Watershed Board co-ordinator, said the permanent solution is raising the weir — and that, he said, should be a government responsibility.

“It’s a public benefit. We’re talking about a very important salmon run,” he said. “It’s clear that, wherever we can get some headwater storage, that’s important.”

The meeting will start at 10 a.m. at Lake Cowichan Centennial Hall, 311 South Shore Rd. For more information, go to env.gov.bc.ca/wsd/cowichan.html.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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