Low water levels threaten Cowichan River, watchdogs warn

Low water levels in Cowichan Lake combined with a forecast for a dry summer season means that watershed watchers are already anxiously watching for rain, while warning that the situation is likely to become dire by late summer.

While it’s only June, things are bad enough that officials have already started to move fish.

Rodger Hunter of the Cowichan Watershed Board said he and others remember the extreme years when water in the river fell to desperately low levels.

"Remember 2003, the bad year that prompted a plan? We were below what’s called the Rule Curve. That means how the water will be allocated through the season, starting at the weir [in Lake Cowichan]. We’re well below the lake level that is required to allocate the water effectively unless it starts to really rain tomorrow," he said.

"If you take the long projection to what our August might be, we’re going to be well down."

Hunter said the provincial government has been approached previously on issues like this but locally it’s time to start a water conservation program.

"But conserving water isn’t going to be the whole nine yards," he said.

"One thing we have learned is that the river is linked to the aquifer. Water appears to leak through the river into the aquifer. So, we’re guessing if we save water locally, if there’s more water in the aquifer, then presumably less flows through."

Another aspect of their studies has been watching the weir because storage in Cowichan Lake is also part of the conservation picture.

"The water has to be present," he said.

Hunter also said local governments are already on board with watering restrictions. The Town of Lake Cowichan, for example, started June 1. And they are also planning a high level meeting.

"Cowichan Tribes Chief Chip Seymour and CVRD board chair Rob Hutchins are going to call together all the water purveyors for a meeting. It should be in early July. We’ll invite the province and the federal government to that meeting as well.

"Hopefully one potential approach is if things get desperate, they might want to pump from Cowichan Lake."

Things on the Cowichan are already getting tough.

"Moving fish is already occurring. Joe Saysell and Parker Jefferson were going out to do some fish salvage on the edges of the river," Hunter said.

Watershed watchers already knew there was trouble brewing on the Cowichan.

"We know that the snow pack was low this year. Another thing we have been doing is that we established the Heather Mountain snow course again in December and we measured it in the spring."

Better equipment up there at some point would be great, he said.

"We’d like to get precise measurements so we can predict what the inflows will be, so we can forecast these things better. There wasn’t much snow this year, much less than normal."

However, there is some good news. "The lake level seems to be leveling off. Normally the flows in the river start to drop about June 15. We step it down slowly so we don’t trap fish. We’re heading down but the lake levels have stabilized, which is good because we need lake water for the river," Hunter said.