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Officials worry about water as drought hits the max in Cowichan

Cowichan Tribes calls for weir replacement
It’s already been a dry summer and more heat is still to come. (Citizen file)

With the drought level in the Cowichan Valley at maximum, officials are increasingly worried about water.

While the Cowichan Valley has been implementing seasonal water restrictions for years, this year restrictions may need to be strengthened even more according to the provincial government.

During an update about the drought conditions on July 13, Emergency Minister Bowinn Ma suggested B.C., its people and its economy should brace for additional water restrictions as the province faces what could be an unprecedented drought.

“We are anticipating a very serious drought season that will require action from everyone,” Ma said. “That likely means every industry, every business, every individual across the province.”

CVRD Senior Environmental Analyst Jeff Moore said while the province individually monitors the Chemainus and Koksilah rivers, at this point they, the Cowichan River, and the whole of Vancouver Island, are at drought level 5, the highest level on the province’s ranking scale.

“There is nothing above 5,” Moore noted. “This is the new scale that the province came out with a couple years ago and it goes 0-5 and we’re at five. It’s really early in the season to be seeing that and we’re looking at more water restrictions.”

Moore also said the provincial government is keeping a close eye on both the Chemainus and Koksilah rivers.

“They’ve already sent out letters to users there to reduce water use,” Moore explained.

He noted that it isn’t yet to the point where it was a couple of years ago when the government asked farmers to forego watering their forage crops with aquifer water and only water their livestock and high value crops.

He said area farmers have a working group where they help each other as best they can to conserve the water.

Meanwhile, Cowichan Tribes brass have reiterated the band’s call for a higher weir given the drought conditions and recent die off of fish in the Cowichan River.

“On June 9, 2023, I sent a letter to BC Minister of Forests Hon. Bruce Ralston, and Hon. Nathan Cullen, minister of Water, Land, and Resource Stewardship regarding extremely low water levels in the Cowichan River jeopardizing the survival of wild salmon fry,” said Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum. “We also reiterated our call for the province to come to the table to support a new, higher Cowichan Weir so that the river and salmon do not face these dire circumstances in the future.”

The First Nation said the “acute” need to replace the weir at Lake Cowichan “has never been more evident as this year,” noting the fish kill in the river has reinforced the concern for the river they’ve expressed for more than a decade.

“Leaders in the region have been working collaboratively and diligently to gain the necessary financial support to replace the weir, and it is now fully designed and engineered,” said the release. “Support is urgently needed from the Province of B.C. to match federal dollars. The environmental, social, and cultural importance of the Cowichan River is too important to delay any longer,” Hwitsum said.

Brian Houle, manager of environment at Catalyst Crofton said as of July 13, the conditions on the river were “basically the same” as they were in 2016.

“In 2016 I was very worried,” Houle said. “In order for us to make the [water] flow until the fall, we had to bring pumps up to the lake. We got the pumps up and running and then the rain came and then we didn’t need to run them.”

Since then, Houle explained, pumps have been brought to the lake a number of times in anticipation of a dry summer. “In 2019 the lake was about half as full as it is today,” Houle said on July 13. “We had to pump from the lake for three weeks so we are in a better place than in 2019 when we had to pump but about the same as 2016.”

Houle said despite having been through similar droughts, he’s still keeping a keen eye on the situation under the assumption they’ll have to intervene this year. “We are fully expecting that, so we’re starting to make arrangements to pump,” he said.

Sarah Simpson

About the Author: Sarah Simpson

I started my time with Black Press Media as an intern, before joining the Citizen in the summer of 2004.
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