Cowichan River bounces back

All across the Valley, anxious Cowichan River watchers were exulting late Wednesday as they looked at an announcement that Stage 3 water restrictions had been lifted.

The decision was pretty well made Tuesday but everything hinged on the river flows Wednesday.

“What was reported this morning was that for the first time in many months Cowichan Lake is at the expected rule curve level,” CVRD board chair Rob Hutchins said. “Yesterday it was up five centimetres and today it will be even higher. Even more important, though, is that the river is flowing at something over seven cubic metres per second.

“We’re very thankful. The recommendation to the water purveyors is to lift the Stage 3 restrictions.”

Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest, who chaired the Cowichan Watershed Board Flows Working Group, said they had held a cheerful meeting on Tuesday night. “The lake, for the first time since mid-May, has risen five centimetres. That is six days of storage but it looks like it’s going to continue to rise now. The weather report that Brian Houle of Catalyst had showed some rain should fall every day for the next two weeks. It looks good. And it couldn’t be at a better time.”

A regular weekly teleconference was held Oct. 15 to make the final decision about the water restrictions.

Communities like Lake Cowichan have been waiting eagerly for that news, Forrest said.

“We actually discussed it at Lake Cowichan council last night [on Tuesday] so we don’t have to hold a meeting to lift this restriction. We agreed in principle that once the word comes we’re good with it.”

It’s been a long, hot summer for the flows group, he said.

“They were all pretty discouraging, tough meetings because of the challenges we had with the levels.

“But yesterday’s meeting was very quick and upbeat, with positive news for a change. Willi Jansen of Fisheries and Oceans was there yesterday and she was ecstatic about how many fish were coming up the river. By eight in the morning they’d counted 286 adult chinooks had gone through the gate with many, many more on the way. Now, I’m seeing people talking about it on Facebook. It looks like there’s enough water for them. It’s good news.”

Rodger Hunter of the Cowichan Watershed Board was delighted at the lifting of the Stage 3 restrictions.

“Our flows are at 7.1, which is good.”

He also shared the latest fish count, which showed how the fish were forging up river from when Forrest had first received the news.

“As of today, there were 1,124 adult Chinook past the counting fence and 727 jacks. And an estimated 400 Coho adults and 400 jacks. And Cowichan Tribes has gotten 550 Chinook for their brood stock and there are more fish waiting to come along.

“Just add water!” Hunter said happily. “Give me that Viking weather! It would be nice to have a little more of a flow of water. We’re up to seven.

“Ideally, we want some pulse flows right now. If we could get up to 18 that would really draw the fish through and up. And that’s not as far off as it seems. Usually in the fall, it happens fast. This has been an unusual fall but this is really positive. It’s a great news story. We shouldn’t have to go through this but we made it. It’s good.”

According to Fisheries and Oceans area director Andrew Thomson, the recent rain is encouraging fish to start up the Cowichan in really increasing numbers.

“They’re doing better. That’s the quick answer.”

The watch at the counting fence is operated jointly by Fisheries and Oceans and Cowichan Tribes. It provides a good tally of the fish going up river, he said.

“We’re hoping for a lot more fish to move up into the system but if you think back a number of years ago when the Cowichan River was really in some dire straits we were down to about 500 fish for the whole season,” Thomson said.

“We definitely want to see a rebuilding of the Cowichan River Chinook stock and we have been seeing that growing. We know there’s more fish in the system. But we’re still looking at other efforts such as trapping and trucking to bring fish up to the upper reaches. We’ll be continuing to assess that.”