Cowichan River lacks both water and a leader

Mark Hume, Globe and Mail, Jun. 16, 2015

Gary Ridley, operator at The Lake Cowichan Weir, and boat lock. The weir has been in operation since 1957. (CHAD HIPOLITO For the Globe and Mail)VANCOUVER — There is a shortage of two things on the Cowichan River this spring – water and political leadership.

To solve the problem of the former, we need the latter, but so far there is none in sight, says Joe Saysell, a former fishing guide whose knowledge of the Vancouver Island river is legendary.

Mr. Saysell has lived on and fought for the Cowichan all his life. His father was a fishing guide before him. He thinks if the provincial and federal governments don’t take action soon, and raise a weir that stores water in Cowichan Lake, there won’t be a need for another generation of guides on the river because the fishery will be destroyed.

“If we don’t get rain this month and July, by September there will be huge sections of the river that will go underground,” Mr. Saysell said. “There won’t be any water for the salmon.”

Like many rivers in British Columbia this year, the Cowichan is running low because winter snowpacks were small and spring brought a long spell of dry, hot weather. Because of climate change, this is what the future looks like. Less snow melt to feed watersheds in the spring, and more rain in the winter that runs off quickly and isn’t there in the summer when most needed.

Unlike many rivers, however, the Cowichan is blessed with a weir that has been in place at the outlet of the lake since the 1950s. The weir holds back water so that a steady supply can be provided to the Catalyst Paper Corp. mill in nearby Crofton. In some years there isn’t a water shortage, but increasingly because of climate change water levels have been getting so low that it has been increasingly difficult to balance the mill’s need for water against the flows required to sustain fish.

Mr. Saysell has been saying for 25 years that the solution is simple: Just raise the height of the weir. That way when heavy rains fill the lake to the brim, the excess water that now flows out over the top of the weir can be stored until it is needed in the summer.

Studies have found that to adequately reconfigure the weir would cost about $10-million. The Cowichan Valley Regional District has proposed that the provincial government use gas-tax revenue to fund that project.

But before the weir can be raised, someone has to apply for a licence to allow for the storage of additional water in the lake.

“I can’t get a water licence for storage,” Mr. Saysell says. “It has to be a big entity – like government. They could do it tomorrow. But we can’t get any movement on this.”

The federal government, which is responsible for salmon in the Cowichan, and the province, which is responsible for trout and steelhead, should be moving to save the river. But so far no minister has stepped forward to take on the challenge.

It will be a costly project, and not without controversy because some land owners on Cowichan Lake don’t want to lose beachfront. Recently, a group of them challenged a provincial government decision to change a rule curve that dictates how much water is released over the weir in July. The Environmental Appeal Board dismissed the landowner complaint, however, saying the impact on their property would be minimal and the benefits to fish in the river would be significant.

That ruling suggests the government can raise the weir to save the fish, without causing undue damage to lakefront property owners.

“The federal and provincial governments need to get together and just have the guts to raise the weir,” Mr. Saysell said. “This [inaction] makes no sense at all. This is crazy. We shouldn’t have to wait for a catastrophe to happen before we get some action.”

Mr. Saysell was out on the river daily in May, walking down shallow side channels, scooping up salmon fry stranded in landlocked pools by dropping water levels. He transferred about 10,000 fish to the main river, saving about 75 per cent of the trapped salmon. Last week the side channel went bone dry and the only thing moving where the pools once stood were clusters of black slugs, feeding on the desiccated remains of the fish that hadn’t been rescued.

What killed the fish? Some would say drought. But really, it was government inaction.

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