Health warning prompted by river bacteria

High levels of bacteria have forced people to stay out of the Lower Cowichan River.

In an advisory posted online Satuday, Aug. 16, Island Health said it was "advising against the use of the lower sections of the Cowichan River for recreational uses such as swimming, wading or tubing. 

"Testing of bacterial levels in the river following rainfall earlier this week has shown higher levels of bacteria than are normally found in the area and that exceed the Canadian Guidelines for Recreational Water Quality," the notice said.

According to Island Health, "repeat sampling will be undertaken this weekend, results of which are not expected back before early next week."

The river is tested in several locations on a regular basis and recently has been tested more frequently as part of the Cowichan River Watershed Board work. 

"While the testing has occurred downstream from the Highway 1 bridge, Island Health is advising that no recreation activity occur downstream from the Allenby Road Bridge. Persons swimming in water with high levels of bacteria are more likely to develop symptoms such as abdominal pains, vomiting and diarrhea," the notice said.

Cowichan Tribes is working closely with Island Health in notifying community members.

The annual Lower Cowichan River Cleanup was scheduled for Sunday and went ahead as usual, with some changes, according to Rodger Hunter, one of the organizers.

"Oh boy, can you believe it would be today? But it happens. People who are planning to go above Allenby Bridge are fine," he said, after marshalling a big group of early bird volunteers who were eager to get on with the cleanup, whatever chance they were given. "This problem is likely related to storm sewers and some runoff from the land. But up past Allenby they are good. They’ll be going in the water doing normal things, having fun with that," Hunter said.

"But down here, it will be a cleanup from the shore. So things that are in the river won’t be coming out of the river but we’ll still get quite a bit of stuff. It’s a good community-building, relationship-building event."

And the one good side of the drought is that "there’s a lot more shoreline," he said.

The cleanup at Lake Cowichan on Saturday also drew lots of volunteers, some diving, some walking in the river, some ferrying garbage to the shore in a variety of boats.

However, that cleanup effort didn’t produce nearly as much garbage as in previous years, according to Hunter.

"Yes, I think you can really see it now. That respect for the river is growing and growing. People are taking the time and they are thinking. It’s all good," he said.