High levels of bacteria have forced people to stay out of the lower Cowichan River.
In a warning posted Saturday, 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.
By Tuesday morning, Island Health was still awaiting test results from repeat samples taken over the weekend and on Monday, according to spokesperson Val Wilson.
"We did take additional samples yesterday morning and we expect those results to be in on Wednesday or Thursday. We’ll know more about the bacterial counts at that point," she said. "We work with North Cowichan, the City of Duncan and Cowichan Tribes. It’s kind of like a team effort. It’s tested at various spots."
Interested residents can quickly see on the Internet if the warning has been lifted by Googling "Island Health beach reports".
In the meantime, Island Health is advising against any recreation activity in the river 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.
Rob Hutchins, co-chair of the Cowichan Watershed Board and chair of the Cowichan Valley Regional District board, said the regular water quality monitoring was affected by the recent rain.
"It’s not unusual that storm events put material into the river and, when we have insufficient flow, lower than normal flow, there is inadequate dilution. The water flows in from various creeks, off the farm land, and out of the storm sewers, too.
"Unfortunately we are in a challenging situation.
In terms of what’s ideal for the ecology of the river, we’re over 36 per cent below what we should be in terms of river flow. The river is the lowest we’ve seen in decades," Hutchins said.
Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest also heard about the river warning on Aug. 16.
"There has been a drought condition for a long time, and as soon as it rains, the storm drains are all emptying into the river at the same time," he said. "It makes perfect sense to me. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when they do the counts this week that everything is back to normal again.
"I certainly hope they are," Forrest said. The health warning came just in time for the annual Cowichan River clean-up, where traditionally a big group of volunteers splashes, wades and dives into the water to remove litter that’s accumulated.
Hutchins was delighted to see a strong turnout for the annual two-day event in spite of the warning, which kept people on the shores of the lower portion of the river. The drought did mean there was more shore than usual.
"The great news is we had more people and less garbage," he said. "In the last four or five years we’ve seen dramatic reductions. We still find too much but there’s been far less than what we had in the past. So, that’s a good news story. There’s growing respect for the river."
Forrest was out for both days of the river cleanup as well.
"Some of the things coming out of the river have been there for decades but it is still concerning that cans and stuff are still going in this year. It is less but it should be zero. People come up here because they enjoyed the beauty and serenity of floating down the river and then they’re damaging it. That is kind of defeating the purpose but it’s getting much better."
He found the message was also hopeful from the Lower Cowichan cleanup.
"There was a bigger turnout at both ends for the cleanup this year. The one in Lake Cowichan was just fantastic. I’ve been told 106 people come out. That’s an amazing amount of volunteers to show up for a day. Seeing those numbers increase like that means a lot," Forrest said.
This year’s river cleanup effort was dedicated to the late Gerald Thom, who had been an enthusiastic volunteer for the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society.