Cowichan Lake needs a higher weir

Editorial, Times Colonist, September 3, 2016

After years of talking and hand-wringing, those who care about the Cowichan River have to overcome the obstacles and raise the dam. The Cowichan is world-famous for its trout and steelhead fishing. It has been declared one of Canada’s Heritage Rivers. It sustains life and jobs in the Cowichan Valley. It deserves better from us.

The essential flow of water in the river is regulated by the weir at the end of Lake Cowichan — what most of us would call a dam. But this year, as in too many years recently, there is not enough water going past the weir to keep up the levels in the river.

In May, the lake was 46 per cent full, the lowest late-May level since 1957, when the weir was built.

There has been too little rain and too little winter snow; one snowpack was only eight per cent of average levels this year. The river, like most of the others on the east coast of the Island, has been closed to sport fishing because the water level is so low.

Closing the river will give some fish a chance to survive, but it won’t raise the water.

For the first time, Catalyst Paper, which relies on water for its mill in Crofton, is spending $500,000 to install 20 pumps at Lake Cowichan in case it has to pull water out the lake to maintain the river. Without enough flow, 600 jobs at the mill are threatened.

If the company fires up the pumps, they could draw down the lake level by 58 centimetres over the 49 days they would be allowed to run. It’s more likely, however, that the level would drop only about 30 centimetres.

Catalyst says it’s a temporary solution. And so it is.

We can’t control the rain or the snow, so the long-term solution is obvious: Raise the weir. That would allow the lake to hold more water, enough to feed the river during dry summers that are a regular occurrence these days. For every centimetre the weir is raised, the river could be bolstered by a day’s worth of flow at seven cubic metres per second.

It’s not a new idea. When David Anderson was federal environment minister in 2004, he backed the notion of raising the weir. Since then, the concern has increased, but nothing concrete has happened.

Raising the weir would be expensive. The estimate is $10 million.

Raising the weir would be complicated. Someone would have to get a licence to increase the water storage, but it’s not clear which of many groups would do that.

Raising the weir would have side-effects. People who have homes and cottages around the lake worry that raising the lake level would affect their waterfront properties.

The river has many friends, from river stewards to fishing groups to First Nations to local governments. The will and the commitment are there, but still, year after year, the summer water levels drop and no solution is in sight.

Cowichan Tribes, the Cowichan Valley Regional District, Catalyst Paper and others are working to get the weir raised, but an application for money from the provincial gas tax was rejected. They are looking for alternatives.

The provincial government could earn some good will, even in an NDP riding, by stepping in to help.

The dry weather will continue, and the problem won’t go away. Raising the weir is the only answer.