A group of Catalyst executives found themselves facing a big crowd at Lake Cowichan’s Centennial Hall Tuesday, July 23.
The event, an information session about Catalyst’s plans for pumping over the Lake Cowichan weir, had morphed from a cozy chat with town council to a major event, drawing close to 200 people to the hall.
Lake Cowichan Mayor Rod Peters and Coun. Tim McGonigle had expressed furious frustration at hearing that the company was planning to make changes to the way it was going to pump Cowichan Lake water over the weir into the Cowichan River.
The problem: Catalyst never mentioned to the town or council about actions that would occur near the town water intake.
Graham Kissack, Catalyst’s communications guru, apologized profusely for the company’s apparent neglect of town council, saying that the company’s three main priorities were “the protection of the lake, the protection of the river, and the protection of your potable water supply”.
He also said that 1,400 letters were being mailed out and ads would be placed in newspapers to help explain what’s going on. There will also be signage erected on the highway. In addition, the Crofton mill has set up a Facebook page that will offer regular weekly updates on what’s going on in the river.
Peters said that very afternoon town officials had met with Catalyst and “the plan they have come up with is the original plan from 2016, which matches all the requirements and it’s going to work for our town. We as a council support the program.”
Kissack then handed off to Brian Houle, the environmental manager at Crofton, who explained what was happening, with assistance from engineer Chris Downey.
Houle said this was the worst year for low water levels that he’s seen in the 10 years he’s been at Crofton.
But since the company will be dealing with a situation that “hasn’t occurred since 1957” there are a lot of unknowns and uncharted territory ahead for both the company and Cowichan Lake residents.
Once pumping starts, the lake level could drop by about 20 inches, Houle said, causing a buzz in the crowd.
He urged everyone living by the lake and river to be “the eyes and ears” for Catalyst, to help monitor what is happening on a daily basis, so any problems can be dealt with quickly.
Downey reassured the crowd that clean, potable water would be available for the town’s drinking water system.
Houle said, “In 2016 there was every expectation that we had to pump from the lake but the rain came in late August and early September. We proved the pumps can work. I think this year there is no way to avoid it. We expect the pumps will need to start about Aug. 17. The pumps will sustain the river at its current flow, 4.5 cms and there will be no impact on the river beyond what has already occurred.”
The licence that Catalyst has been given by the province requires that they keep an eye on what’s happening on the lake and identify hazards to navigation.
But there’s more.
“Cowichan Lake has an interesting aspect: there is a species at risk, the Vancouver lamprey, it is a listed species. We have to provide extra special care that that fish is not impacted in any way. The licence is very clear; there will be weekly dialogues. We’ll be sharing the information with everybody,” Houle said.
Kissack said, answering a question about how desperate the situation truly is, “This is really, really, really bad this year. This weir was installed in 1957. It’s designed to hold back 97 cm of lake height. That water is supposed to be fully held until basically the end of July when we start releasing it at one centimetre per day. And that gives us 97 days of storage from Aug. 1 until the end of October when the rains come back and recharge the lake. What’s happened is this water basin and other basins in the Pacific Northwest have seen huge, huge impacts from climate change. So this water basin is only getting about two thirds of the water it used to get in spring and summer. Back on June 1 we had to ratchet it back about 50 per cent because there wasn’t enough water from the lake. Now, we’re literally within three weeks of hitting zero storage in the lake. The river would run dry. Running out of water is absolutely a reality.”