Never in his 25 years working as a fisheries biologist and with local water issues has Tom Rutherford ever seen the water situation in Cowichan Lake so dire.
Rutherford, executive director of the Cowichan Watershed Board, said if no significant rain falls in the region soon, the lake will face the unprecedented situation of having no storage capacity left sometime between early July and mid August.
He said if that happens, there will not be enough head water to push water out of the lake and into the Cowichan River, one of the main groundwater sources for the Valley and integral to operations at the Crofton pulp and paper mill.
Rutherford said that could potentially lead to fish habitats being destroyed, water shortages and even the closure of the mill.
He said that would leave the Valley in a “tough situation”.
“One option is the mill has a licence to pump water from the lake into the river which involves large industrial pumping systems,” he said.
“But that would lower the water level in the lake to historical levels that haven’t been seen in millennia and we’re really not sure what the risks to that are. As well, having the flow of water in the river dependent on pumps is not a good solution to this problem.”
The mill placed a pump system in Cowichan Lake as part of a pilot project in the last part of the dry summer of 2016, but it rained heavily after they were installed so they were never used.
Rutherford said Cowichan Tribes, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the province and Pacific Excellence, which owns the mill, have been meeting regularly in recent weeks and months to try and find solutions to the issue.
“We’re working hard to find the means to increase the storage capacity in the lake, but it’s a fact that climate change is here and water inflow into the lake has been reduced by one-third over the last 30 years,” he said.
“If we want to maintain the lifestyle values that we are used to living with, like having flowing rivers and lots of salmon, we can’t keep doing the same things and expect miracles to happen. The weir on the lake (that separates Cowichan Lake from the Cowichan River) must be raised, and raised soon.”
Last summer, record-breaking heat and low rainfall pushed Vancouver Island, including the Cowichan Valley, and other areas of B.C. into a Level 4 drought rating, the highest drought classification available.
Rutherford said climate specialists predict that, with climate change, hotter, drier summers and more precipitation in the winter months in the form of rain will become the new norm.
But he pointed out that, unlike snow which forms packs in the mountains over the winter months that melt in the summer and helps keep flows going into the lake, rain quickly disappears.
“Unlike many of the other rivers on Vancouver Island, we here in the Valley have the opportunity to do something by building a new weir,” Rutherford said.
“The Cowichan Watershed Board is working closely with our foundation partners (Cowichan Tribes and the CVRD) and Paper Excellence on acquiring funding for the engineering feasibility and design work for a new weir, but we don’t have the money yet.”
Rutherford said building a weir is not a small project and the people in the Valley must work together as a community to ensure water needs are met.
“My sense is that engaged communities are the most effective in achieving results,” he said.
“We need the support of senior levels of government and if the community is all pulling together in the same direction, we can start making progress. There’s really no other option.”
On May 30, Alistair MacGregor, MP for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, stood in Parliament and asked the Liberal government to commit funding to raise the Lake Cowichan weir to protect the Cowichan watershed in light of the crisis.
“This past Saturday, I was on the river helping rescue salmon fry that were stranded in pools from the rapidly receding main river,” he said.
“The situation is dire and my community is calling for leadership. When will the federal government commit to the funding necessary to raise the Cowichan weir to save this critical watershed and the salmon who depend on it?”
In response, Sean Casey, parliamentary secretary to Jonathon Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, said the Liberals continue to ensure the sustainability of aquatic ecosystems.
“We understand the importance of fishery resources in the Cowichan River to local indigenous groups and the local community,” he said.
“We are aware of the issues regarding the low-summer flow and the threats to fish and fish habitat. The department and the minister have attended meetings with local indigenous groups and provincial and local governments. We are actively engaged in ongoing discussions to find solutions and the possibilities of federal funding.”