Drought threatens Cowichan Valley drinking water, jobs, salmon, sewage treatment

Fish, drinking water, sewage dilution and jobs in the Cowichan Valley are at risk if substantial rain does not fall by Oct. 27, say worried stewardship groups and politicians watching shrinking flows in the Cowichan River.

The drought has already taken its toll on the Cowichan River and it is probably too late to save most of this year's returning chinook, said Gerald Thom, chairman of Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society. "I am not being alarmist. If we don't get rain in the next three weeks, the Cowichan could run dry."

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That could mean temporarily closing the Catalyst Pulp and Paper Mill in Crofton - with about 600 employees - an unknown effect on drinking water for communities that rely on the aquifer under the river, such as Duncan, North Cowichan and Cowichan Tribes, and no dilution of treated sewage pumped into the river, which could lead to health concerns, said Rob Hutchins, Cowichan Valley Regional District chairman. "We are praying for rain," he said.

About three days of steady rain are needed to bring up levels and persuade chinook salmon, now pooling in the estuary where they are providing a feast for sea lions, to move up the river, Thom said.

Climate change, logging and an exceptionally dry August and September are among the culprits, but the problem could have been addressed in early summer if the province had shown some flexibility and allowed more water to be stored in Cowichan Lake in June and July, said Thom and Hutchins.

A weir, managed by the Forests Ministry, with a water licence held by Catalyst, holds back water, which is released into the river over the summer.

But rules say only a certain amount can be stored.

"Over the last 10 years, the province has been quite flexible about allowing a little more water to be stored," Thom said.

That ended this year when the Forests Ministry decided that, despite wet weather in June and July, they had to stick to the rules. "They explained that, in the past, we had been breaking the law, so we had to push 15 cubic metres per second over the weir and into the river," Thom said.

Hutchins, mayors of surrounding communities and Cowichan Tribes representatives met with Forests Minister Steve Thomson, asking for additional water to be stored.

They were told the regional district board should apply for an additional water storage licence on the river, Hutchins said.

That proposal will go to the district board next week, but it is a long-term solution and does not address this year's problems, he said.

David Anderson, former federal environment minister and a member of the Cowichan Watershed Advisory Board, is flabbergasted at the provincial response. "They messed up. They were given clear advice what to do and they just gambled that there would be a wet fall."

The ministry apparently gave in to a small group of lakeshore residents who did not want their beaches affected by a high lake water level, Anderson said.

"The result of that extraordinarily illogical decision is the present serious risk to trout and salmon populations," he said.

Forests Ministry spokesman Brennan Clarke said in an email that an application for a new water licence - in addition to the Catalyst licence - would allow the regional district to increase the lake's allowable storage.


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