Don’t take Cowichan’s water for granted

With reference to the thoughtful contribution to the sustainable water debate by Dave Slade in the Jan. 2 edition of the Cowichan Valley Citizen and the response by Barry Dixon published in the Jan. 9 edition I would like to add a few more thought-provoking facts and figures on the water issue relevant to the Cowichan watershed and its water users.

First: no doubt about the scientific evidence of clear cutting the upper Cowichan River watershed being a significant root cause of the erratic and increasingly untimely inflow of water into Lake Cowichan.

It is well documented that large scale clear-cutting and the destruction of micro-watersheds dramatically reduce the waterretaining capacity of a natural multi-layered vegetation cover. Although we are blessed with very high precipitation along the West Coast of Vancouver Island and B.C., heavy rainfall, generally concentrating on winter-and early spring months, will result in increasing frequency of downstream flooding and rapid run-off, unable to re-charge replenishable aquifers along the way if the destruction of microwatersheds continues. This problem is exacerbated through clear-cutting steep slopes causing soil erosion and removal of ground cover while increasing siltation of water courses.

Second: The total water extraction by the Catalyst Paper Mill from the Cowichan River currently averages an alleged 34 million Imperial gallons per day. “Alleged” because the water extracted from the river is not measured at the intake close to the Cowichan District Hospital but rather at the outflow pipe at the pulp mill prior to the used water entering the primary treatment plant.

It is unknown how much water is lost through an outdated and leaking pipe system inside the mill.

The 34 million gallons of water used by the mill are discharged daily into the ocean without being recycled as required by pulp mills in Europe and other countries which recycle their water up to 20 times.

This waste of water by the mill results in a net loss of 34 million gallons of prime water daily from the lower part of the Cowichan River, water which is needed most in summer and early fall during the salmon run, and water that is essential for the survival of the Cowichan Estuary salt marshes.

To put this issue into perspective: based on an average per capita water consumption of a conservative 250 litres per day the 168.2 million litres (i.e. 34 million Imperial gallons) of water used by the pulp mill every day could supply the water of 67,282 persons daily, more than three quarters of the total CVRD population (i.e. 80,332).

It also is interesting to note that North Cowichan buys on average 65 million gallons of water per year from Catalyst before it enters the mill to supply the Crofton water system at a cost of approximately $20,000/year. Catalyst in comparison pays a token royalty to the Crown for its water use.

In this context it is noteworthy that at the peak of last year’s summer drought in the Valley the president of Catalyst Paper announced on the BBC news that the mill may have to shut down due to water shortage threatening 600 jobs.

The logical question to ask: why does the mill not invest into a proper water recycling system in order to make jobs in mill operations sustainable if water is the key limiting factor to mill operations?

Third: In his article Dave Slade draws attention to aquifers in the Cowichan River catchment area indicating that an increasing number of wells are running dangerously low and/or dry as of late.

He also mentions that very little is known about our aquifers. Inventories of aquifers in our area are largely lacking and little information is available on how many and to which extent aquifers in the Cowichan watershed are being replenished from rain-water.

In his article Dave does not mention the increasing global and possibly local importance of “fossil” aquifers of which nothing is known here on Vancouver Island and little in the rest of Canada.

According to Wikipedia, fossil water, also known as “paleowater” is groundwater that remained sealed in an aquifer for thousands or even millions of years, after being sealed off from further replenishment by precipitation through geological processes.

With increasing impacts of climate change several countries in the world already depend on fossil water. What will happen to these countries once the fossil aquifers are emptied?

The Ogallala fossil aquifer is a classic example of what may happen if it is depleted: it currently feeds 90 per cent of the irrigated agricultural areas of the United States, the bread-basket of North America.

Once depleted, grain production in the U.S. will come to a halt, seriously threatening the overall food supply. Predictions indicate that this may happen already in four decades.

Translated to the Cowichan Watershed: how do we know that we are not already tapping into fossil aquifers with our deep wells?

This should be a wake-up call for all of us. We all have to be aware of our water consumption no matter whether personal, industrial, or for agriculture in order to make water available for generations to come.

Dr. Goetz Schuerholz Chair CERCA