The pumps were in an working in earnest in September 2019 as water levels in the Cowichan River sank to new lows. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

2019 in Review: Dry February, March forced pumping of water from Cowichan Lake for the first time

Water levels were already low even before the ‘dry’ season arrived, making situation ‘dire’

Water, weir, and woe were three subjects that frequently ended up in the same story during 2019.

After a wet January, the heavy rains simply stopped coming to the Cowichan Valley, and as the year moved along, there was more and more concern about both the present and the future of both Cowichan Lake and the Cowichan River.

A report in early March said that Cowichan Lake was only about 40 per cent full of water, a low level not usually seen until August, calling it “disturbing news”.

“This is setting up to be one of the worst summers yet in the Cowichan. Catalyst is asking the province for permission to start storing water behind the weir before the mandated date of April 1, possibly as early as March 11,” the report, released by the Cowichan Lake and River Stewards, continued.

Those comments set the tone for the entire year.

Asked about the situation, Ian Morrison, CVRD board chair, said, “I guess where I’m concerned is the [low] numbers from the snow pillow on Heather Mountain because precipitation in the form of snow on the hills is water in the bank.”

Catalyst’s Graham Kissack agreed with Morrison and said the company was trying to be proactive with their request to the province.

But, by mid-May, salmon fry rescue operations were underway as crews found their worst fears were confirmed.

Ken Traynor, president of the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society, said, “This is the key period for the salmon fry: both for those that hatched in the river and are moving up to the lake.”

But when and how to manage the Cowichan River’s flow was a difficult challenge. Traynor said he and many others were anxiously watching.

It wasn’t long before the word “dire” was being used around the Valley to describe the water situation.

Never in his 25 years working as a fisheries biologist and with local water issues had Tom Rutherford, executive director of the Cowichan Watershed Board, seen such water levels.

He said a lack of water could potentially lead to fish habitats being destroyed, water shortages and even the closure of the Crofton mill.

Pumping from the lake into the river, involving a large industrial pumping system “would lower the lake to historical levels that haven’t been seen in millennia and we’re really not sure what the risks to that are. As well, having the flow of water in the river dependent on pumps is not a good solution to this problem.”

The mill placed pumps in Cowichan Lake in 2016, but it rained heavily after they were installed so they were never used.

Rutherford said, “If we want to maintain the lifestyle values that we are used to living with we can’t keep doing the same things and expect miracles to happen. The weir on the lake must be raised, and raised soon.”

By mid-June the B.C. government had announced a Level 3 drought rating for Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Rutherford said all indications were that the lake would still reach zero-storage capacity sometime around the middle August if the Valley didn’t soon get a significant amount of rain.

“To really make a difference, it would have to rain cats and dogs here for many days,” he said.

Pumps at the weir had entered the discussion for real.

An announcement that pumping could draw down the level of Cowichan Lake by as much as 20 inches silenced a big meeting at Lake Cowichan July 23 where Catalyst executives spoke to town council and the community.

Kissack said, “This is really, really, really bad this year. Running out of water is absolutely a reality.”

Houle then explained, “In 2016 we proved the pumps can work. I think this year there is no way to avoid it. We expect the pumps would need to start about Aug. 17. The pumps would sustain the river at its current flow, 4.5 cms and there would be no impact on the river beyond what has already occurred.”

As plans for pumping moved forward, Catalyst began warning boaters on Cowichan Lake to operate their craft with “extreme caution”.

However, in the midst of all the kerfuffle, pumping plans were put on hold until the end of August because of some rainfall in late summer. Catalyst by then had 20 pumps installed, and confirmed that 12 of them should be enough to maintain sufficient water flows if needed.

Houle said the Crofton mill is large and requires a lot of water to run it.

“If flow from the lake is less than 4.5 CMS, there could be impacts to the mill [although the operation rarely shuts down entirely],” he said.

Catalyst announced plans to begin pumping water over the weir on Cowichan Lake at 11 a.m. on Aug. 29, prior to the Labour Day weekend.

“This early action of shifting river flow from gravity feed to electrically energized pump feed would have no impact on conditions in the river.”

Houle said that when the lake level again rises to levels that would support 4.5 CMS by gravity feed, the pumps would be turned off.

Senior levels of government then stepped up with funding to help pay for the preliminary work required to build a new weir on Cowichan Lake.

The Cowichan Valley Regional District, in collaboration with Cowichan Tribes, Paper Excellence Canada and the Cowichan Watershed Board, who submitted a joint application, will get $4.08 million over three years for the work, with $1.3 million this fiscal year and the remaining money coming in the next two years, from the joint-federal/provincial BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund.

The funding is expected to be used on two key activities: detailed engineering designs and strategies for the removal of the existing weir plus determination of Cowichan Lake’s natural boundary in order to conduct a private-property impact assessment on lake levels if and when a new dam is constructed in the future.

Pumping, when it began on Aug. 29, went smoothly, according to Houle. By mid-September, the level of Cowichan Lake had been dropping by about a quarter inch a day up to Sept. 13 but by Sept. 18, the pumps were shut down as enough rain was falling.

Houle was able report that the water flow in the Cowichan River has risen to 5.2 CMS, a rise of about two CMS. That meant the river was seeing approximately 40 per cent more flow than it had all summer.

And, Houle pointed out “we are now into the wet season. Rainfall is more likely every week at this time of year.”

He said that while not much rain is forecast right now, the wet season is here and the level in the lake is high enough to make this first move to begin increasing the water flowing in the river.

“The objective is to raise the river flow to the licence minimum of seven CMS as soon as possible,” Houle said. “I expect the flow would be back to seven CMS by the end of next week, and sooner if possible.”

By mid-December, Catalyst was reporting that Cowichan Lake was still not full, even after a fairly wet fall.

However, Houle said the rain which was forecast should do the trick, but added that 2019 would go down as a very unusual year from beginning to end.

“When comparing 2019 to the most recent dry year of 2016, 63 per cent less water flowed down the Cowichan River in 2019 from Feb. 1 to Dec. 13. From the other trends, the snow pack is zero today and wet weather is predicted to begin this week,” he said, adding that planning for 2020 has begun already, [since] the next drought could be next year.

By the end of the year, Lake Cowichan Mayor Rod Peters reported that a group of high-level stakeholders were to sit down Jan. 15 to look at setting a firm date in March for raising the weir.

“It has to be shut in March. I don’t know if it will be March 1 or March 15 but it will be up by April. We need to keep water in the lake.”

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