Periods of rain over the last week in the Cowichan Valley have done little to help deal with the ongoing water crisis.
But it’s hoped that the rain we are forecast to receive today and tomorrow could give water users and planners more time to get through the crisis before the wet season is expected to begin again in the fall.
Local water experts agree that the Valley needs a lot more than the few millimetres that we’ve had so far to make any difference to water levels in Cowichan Lake, one of the main groundwater sources for the Valley and integral to operations at the Catalyst pulp and paper mill in Crofton.
Tom Rutherford, executive director of the Cowichan Watershed Board, said all indications are that the lake will still reach zero-storage capacity sometime around the middle August if the Valley doesn’t soon get a significant amount of rain.
“The rain we’ve been receiving so far may have bought us just a couple of days more before we reach zero capacity,” he said.
“To really make a difference, it would have to rain cats and dogs here for many days.”
If Lake Cowichan reaches zero storage, there will not be enough head water to push water out of the lake and into the Cowichan River, which could potentially lead to fish habitats being destroyed, water shortages and even the closure of the mill.
One option is pumping water over the weir from the lake into the river, for which the mill has a licence.
But the fear is that could lower the water level in the lake to historical levels that haven’t been seen in millennia, with nobody really knowing the risks that could entail.
Brian Houle, the mill’s environment manager, agreed that the rain the Valley has received up to this date is “just a sprinkle” of what’s needed to deal with the water problem.
“It’s a very challenging climate here and while rain is sometimes forecast during the dry season in the summer months, it is often cancelled when the actual day arrives and, if it does come, it’s just a fraction of what was forecast,” he said.
“We would need tens of millimetres of rain to begin to make a difference.”
Matt MacDonald, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said a “pretty healthy” weather system is actually forecast to hit the Valley on Wednesday and Thursday that could possibly see up to 20 millimetres of rain fall in the area.
“July is usually the Valley’s driest month, with just about 35 millimetres of rain typically falling during the whole month,” MacDonald said.
“The Valley has received just small drops in an empty bucket so far this season, so this could be good news.”
But MacDonald warned the possible relief could be just short-lived, with no more precipitation forecast for several weeks.
“We’re moving into the driest time of year, so it’s unlikely we’ll see any more significant rainfall for the rest of the season,” he said.
Houle said he still has hope enough rain could fall to ease the situation, as it has in the past.
“During the drought in the summer of 2016, we were right at zero storage in the lake in late August and then we had several days of significant rainfall that really helped matters,” Houle said.
“Catalyst spent about $1 million preparing pumps that year, but we didn’t need them in the end. Let’s just hope for a lot more rain.”