District aims for year-round use of Chemainus wells

The municipality of North Cowichan is applying to amend a BC Environmental Assessment Certificate to use the controversial Chemainus Wells year round. Council voted at its June 4 meeting to start what Mayor Jon Lefebure described as "a fairly onerous process".

The municipality is going to tread warily as a strong reaction by the Halalt Nation to the construction of North Cowichan’s Chemainus Wells saw the question end up in the Supreme Court of Canada.

Municipal CAO Dave Devana explained that they’re considering yearround use of the wells because the alternative would cost a lot of taxpayer dollars.

"Island Health is going to require us to put in UV protection at our Holyoak Lake/Banon Creek system, which will add significant costs. We believe, and we have to start the process, that we can demonstrate that the Chemainus well water, which is excellent water, will be able to provide for the needs of Chemainus all year round," he said.

The municipality will have to go through an environmental assessment process, and Devana said they’ve already had a first meeting with the Halalt band.

Coun. Al Siebring was concerned about the Halalt reaction to the process.

"We’ve been to court already once over this. Do we have any sense that we can talk about publicly at least about the Halalt position on this latest development?" he asked.

"All I can say is we met with the Chief and some of their key representatives a couple of weeks ago," Devana replied. "We were very open and transparent about what our intentions were, what the process might look like and that we were going to apply. We have indicated to them that we do have a mitigation strategy in the event that there is any harm to the aquifer or the river flow levels."

The strategy involves taking Holyoak Lake water and putting it upstream in equal amounts to the water North Cowichan would be taking out downstream.

"They [the Halalt Nation] seemed open but we don’t know until we start the process and do the proper studies," he said. "Hopefully we don’t make any of the mistakes we made last time and keep them well informed this time. Hopefully this thing will go smoother than it went last time. But in the end it’s up to the minister and the EAO to decide."

Lefebure agreed that everything is up in the air.

"The Chief said right up front that this was just an information meeting, that was the stage we were at," he said.

Coun. Ruth Hartmann also wanted to know what a UV filtration system would cost to build and municipal engineer John MacKay told her it would be at least $10 million in capital costs alone.

Devana added that Island Health has been flexible with the municipality so far but the cost would be high when maintenance was factored in as well.

That brought discussion around to who’s paying.

"It’s a water system, funded by the Chemainus water users. It’s not like the municipality as a whole can fund this. If we were forced to go to that UV protection we would be having to look to federal or provincial support to ease the burden on the Chemainus water user base," Devana said.

Coun. Jennifer Woike, concerned about costs for the water users, said, "If this ever came to this, I would hope council of the day would look at a public-private partnership project."