Dry Cowichan a grim warning

The Cowichan River crisis, which threatens salmon, jobs and drinking-water supplies, is a preview of the problems that lie ahead for this region, and the province, as the climate changes. The Cowichan flow has been dramatically reduced by a prolonged drought and hot weather.

That's no surprise. The provincial government's climate-change forecasts have warned for several years of the risk of drought and shrinking rivers due to global warming. Leaving aside discussion of causes, the consensus is that more extreme weather, including droughts, is already upon us.

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But in the case of the Cowichan, the provincial government has not heeded its own warnings about the need for preparation and mitigation.

There is a solution to the Cowichan crisis. A weir at Lake Cowichan, managed by the Forest Ministry, controls water flow into the river, under a water licence held by Catalyst Paper. The flow could have been reduced in the spring, when rainfall was more frequent, providing a reserve for the dry season - especially for this critical time when salmon need adequate flows to enter the river to spawn.

For the past decade, according to groups who work on protecting the river, the ministry has done just that, providing a needed reserve.

But this year, the Forests Ministry said that the licence rules prohibit the practice. Local mayors, Cowichan Valley Regional District chairman Ron Hutchins and representatives of First Nations met Forests Minister Steve Thomson to ask that more water be stored. He told them to apply for a change to the licence, a lengthy process.

It all looks much like buck-passing, a desire to avoid the inevitable complaints that will come if the lake level rises and cottagers are affected.

And the failure to act risks sacrificing the salmon run, creating a water-supply crisis for communities and hurting the economy. Catalyst Paper has 600 employees at its Crofton mill, which might have to shut down because of water shortages.

River protection shouldn't be left up to individual regional districts or municipalities. Our streams and watersheds are a shared resource, and require competent, active provincial government management.

It's also disappointing that no one in government - not Thomson or any official - has been prepared to answer questions about the decision. Bland written statements by communications staff do not provide the public with the needed information, and betray claims of openness and accountability.

The Cowichan crisis raises broader questions about the government's preparation for the impact of climate change.

The Environment Ministry has set out the likely effects of coming changes, including "lower river levels during the dry summer season." Higher temperatures will increase the need for water and reduce supplies and threaten the survival of some species. Floods and landslides will be an increasing seasonal threat that "will endanger sensitive ecosystems, people's lives and property." Wildfires will increase.

The point of the forecasts is to allow preparation and mitigation efforts. The Cowichan River situation, for example, is a reminder of the potential disaster if the aquifers that provide drinking water to thousands of homes in the region aren't adequately replenished by precipitation.

The government's failure to respond effectively in this case raises serious concerns about its commitment to protecting British Columbians from the effects of climate change.

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