A river nearly ran dry: Anger grows over lack of action on B.C. water levels

Salmon are slowly making their way up the Cowichan River to spawning grounds after a pulse of water was released from the upstream weir by Catalyst Paper this week.

But frustration with lack of provincial government action is growing among Cowichan Tribes, local politicians, Cowichan Watershed Board members and conservation groups.

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“What you have here is a bureaucratically driven disaster,” said Bruce Fraser, Cowichan Valley Regional District director and former chairman of the provincial Forest Practices Board.

The Cowichan River, whose chinook salmon run numbers are used to set fisheries throughout the south coast, almost ran dry during this year’s drought.

The province 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. Until early August, water spilled over the weir instead of being stored.

“We are facing an example of excruciatingly bad management on the part of the province,” said Paul Rickard, of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, at an impromptu meeting on Thursday morning.

Now, with fish being trucked to spawning grounds and low numbers of returns as waiting chinook are eaten by seals in the estuary, the battle is on over how to prevent the same thing happening in future years.

“Right now we have lost chinook and we have lost coho and steelhead fry,” said the B.C. Wildlife Federation’s Ted Brookman.

Both the province and groups that work together to protect and maintain the river and watershed agree more storage capacity is the answer.

But that’s the extent of the agreement.

The province wants the CVRD to apply for an additional water storage licence and the CVRD says that amounts to downloading, as it is the province’s responsibility.

At a Wednesday CVRD meeting, staff were instructed to look at the implications of taking on a water licence, such as potential costs and liabilities.

But that would be a fallback position if the province refuses to act, Fraser said.

“They are shirking their responsibility,” said Rodger Hunter, Cowichan Watershed Board co-ordinator.

“The province needs to belly up to the bar and take out a conservation licence on behalf of all the fish in the Cowichan River,” Brookman added.

Part of the concern is that Cowichan Lake landowners, who might lose some of their summer beach space, would demand compensation, but Gerald Thom, president of the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society, said many agree extra water storage is needed.

For now, there is no discussion about raising the weir, which is what provoked concern four years ago, Thom said.

“All the landowners I have spoken to around the lake see using the existing weir as a no-brainer,” he said.

Forests Ministry spokesman Brennan Clarke said in an emailed response to questions that the province is not willing to “impose this type of solution without a clear consensus from the community.”

It is essential that local community interests are represented, which is why the CVRD should initiate the water licence application, Clarke said.

The province agrees that additional reserves in the lake would be a benefit and, for years, the CVRD has had the option of applying for a water storage licence, but has not done so, Clarke said.

“The province has the ability to apply for such a licence, but the application would have to be supported by demonstrable benefits to provincially managed fish species such as steelhead and trout,” he said.

“At this time, we do not have enough information about these benefits.”


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