Senior levels of government are kicking in funding to help pay for the preliminary work required to build a new weir on Cowichan Lake.
The Cowichan Valley Regional District, in collaboration with Cowichan Tribes, Paper Excellence Canada and the Cowichan Watershed Board, who submitted a joint application, will receive $4.08 million over three years for the work, with $1.3 million this fiscal year and the remaining money coming in the next two years, from the joint-federal/provincial BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund.
The funding was announced by John Wilkinson, minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard, along with several other projects being supported by BCSRIF on Vancouver Island, at an event on Aug. 26 in Colwood.
The funding is expected to be used on two key activities necessary to move forward on attaining a long-term water supply for the Cowichan River.
The first component will be development of detailed engineering designs and permitting for a new weir in Cowichan Lake, as well as strategies for the removal of the existing weir.
The second component of the project will be to determine Cowichan Lake’s natural boundary in order to conduct a private-property impact assessment associated with an increase to lake levels if and when a new dam is constructed in the future.
Ian Morrison, the chairman of the CVRD who served as master of ceremonies at the funding announcement, said it’s “fantastic news”.
“This is great news for our region as this work is direly needed to prevent further damage and degradation of fish populations in one of our heritage river systems,” said Morrison.
“We are grateful to DFO for recognizing the importance of this work, and to our partners for their collaborative efforts to seek a viable solution that will protect the vital resources of fish and water.”
Morrison said while the total costs of the weir project to its completion have yet to be determined, it won’t fall to local taxpayers to cover it.
He said it’s the responsibility of senior levels of government to ensure fish habitats are protected.
Catalyst Crofton, which operates the weir at Cowichan Lake, plans to begin pumping water over the weir into the Cowichan River at 11 a.m. on Aug. 29, the first time it has been required since the weir was constructed in 1967.
The water level in the river is continuing its downward trend as the summer progresses with little or no rain, and it’s been determined that pumps will be needed to keep minimal flows in the river prior to the conclusion of the Labour Day long weekend.
Catalyst’s Crofton pulp mill, which depends on water from the Cowichan River to run its operations, has been planning to begin pumping water over the weir for weeks if the region didn’t get sufficient rain to raise the water levels in the lake.
“Lack of water surety is becoming one of the Valley’s biggest issues threatening the recharge of local drinking water aquifers, water supply for agriculture and our Crofton mill operation, and putting the health of the river at risk,” said Brian Baarda, CEO of Paper Excellence, the parent company of Catalyst Crofton.
“We’re relieved to see both governments supporting this work that will lay the foundation to increase water storage to more effectively handle climate change impacts.”
Alistair MacGregor, MP for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, has been advocating for the construction of a new weir for years.
He said the funding announced is very welcome news for the region.
“Upgrading the Cowichan weir is necessary for the long-term health of the Cowichan River, something I have continuously pressed the federal government on since first being elected,” he said.
“I’m extremely pleased to see this important first step, which will allow for the weir design and impact engineering to proceed.”
Doug Routley, MLA for Nanaimo-North Cowichan, said the Cowichan River fish runs have been threatened year after year by low water levels, so an upgraded weir will be critical to sustain local wild salmon populations.
“This is the kind of funding we recommended as part of the Wild Salmon Advisory Council’s report, and I’m proud to have been a part of moving this work forward,” he said.