Cowichan River’s drought crisis brought action to change the future

The Cowichan River was literally days away from running dry this summer and fall, in one of the Cowichan Valley’s worst crises of 2014.

The environmental disaster would have shut down Catalyst Mill in Crofton, sewage lagoons that discharge into the river, dried up drinking water to thousands and devastated the river’s fish population.

"This is a critical situation for our community that we’re facing," said Cowichan Valley Regional District regional services committee chair Gerry Giles in August. But river experts were sounding the alarm long before then.

In June Rodger Hunter of the Cowichan Watershed Board reported that officials had already started to truck fish up the river due to low water levels, and that the situation was already more perilous than the worst year on record, 2003.

A low snow pack had forecast potential trouble by early spring.

Water restrictions put in place over the summer barely put a dent in the problem.

Watershed board member and CVRD board chair Rob Hutchins explained some of the history to the board in August.

For the last 11 years the region has been feeling the effects of climate change, Hutchins said, with one significant winter flood and a number of years of low flow in the summer that have required the trucking of fish up the river.

The magic number, he said, is seven cubic metres per second. This is the lowest level of flow that ensures the health of fish in the river, the dilution of sewage that’s discharged from two lagoons and allows Catalyst mill in Crofton to keep running.

Predicting a bad summer, officials lowered that rate to five cubic metres per second in July, to try to hold off a water flow crisis.

Things evened out for awhile, Hutchins said, but by August the river was once again in trouble.

"The fish are under stress," he said, citing a report that stated that as of July 13, the water temperatures in some of the pools where the fish were gathered had risen to between 25 and 27 degrees C and that many dead fry were starting to be seen as a result.

"For us, salmon are not only a staple but an overall indicator of the health of the Valley," said Tim Kulchyski, a biologist with Cowichan Tribes.

Nevertheless, with the looming possibility of storage reaching zero, the CVRD board voted to support a move to lower the flows further to 4.5 cubic metres per second.

A number of diffusers that run from the JUB sewage lagoons were actually above the water level and thus no longer working, though not all of them have to be working to ensure adequate dilution levels.

B.C. Parks posted signs on the river warning of the low water levels, Hutchins reported.

"The river flow is so low that it’s actually dangerous in some areas for tubers," he explained.

"It is a message that we really have to drive home to people that we really need a long-term solution," said Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest. "It gets worse and worse every year."

But even that wasn’t as low as things would go, as a rainfall in mid-August caused more problems than it solved.

On Aug. 16 Island Health issued a warning against swimming, wading or tubing in the Lower Cowichan River because of high bacteria counts due to rain washing contaminants into what were still critically low water levels.

"The river is the lowest we’ve seen in decades," Hutchins said.

It wasn’t until mid-October that things really started to turn around.

Rainfall came just in time to lift river levels back to the rule curve and watering restrictions were finally lifted.

Dwindling summer flows are not a new problem for the river, but this year’s scare has prompted action to try to prevent such a crisis in the future.

The CVRD has taken the lead on the flow issue and are drawing up plans to raise the weir by 30 centimetres to store more water for the dry season, as well as adding pumps to be able to get water from the lake into the river should the danger of running dry hit the waterway again.