“The elders talk about salmon runs being so numerous that there were runs all year round and you could fish all year round.”(Tim Kulchyski, Cowichan Tribes Fisheries Consultant)
The Cowichan watershed, including the adjacent and intertwined Koksilah sub-basin, has changed dramatically in recent decades. Land use practices over many years had already degraded the natural functions of this wild pacific salmon dominated ecosystem; new stresses due to climate change have now put these watersheds in crisis. Climate modeling predicts warmer, wetter winters and longer drier summers for the region, with extreme droughts and flood events already becoming the “norm” in the past decade. If no action were taken, it is likely that in many future years, the Cowichan and its sub-watersheds may be too dry to support fall salmon returns, and already the populations are reduced.
Click here for recent Climate Projections for the Cowichan valley Regional District.
It was this situation that was the impetus for the Cowichan Watershed Board ten years ago, and the constructive and successful partnerships that have been fostered by the Board are giving hope for the future. Today there are major projects underway throughout the watershed to address some of the most pressing threats, including:
Replacing the Cowichan Lake weir:
Scoping a Water Sustainability Plan for the Koksilah River watershed:
Improving public understanding of watershed health and its benefits to us.
Dozens of projects associated with the Board’s collaborative Working Groups focused on improving:
- Water Quality
- Estuarine Health
- Salmon Sustainability
- Wise Water Use
- Watershed Connection (formerly Watershed IQ)
- Water Supply / Flows
- Riparian Habitats Protection
Salmon Impacts: Salmon are a keystone species in the watershed, providing marine captured nutrients that support the entire ecosystem. Climate change impacts are already resulting in flow reductions that are having serious impacts to all life history stages of Cowichan salmon: interfering with the ability of adult salmon to migrate upstream to spawn; stranding juvenile salmon as they attempt to rear or migrate to the ocean; reducing food and habitat availability; and increasing vulnerability to predation. These impacts are compounded by forestry and land use practices and are expected to increase as climate change progresses. Efforts to mitigate these impacts include controlling water flows with the Cowichan Lake weir, salvaging fry, building more rearing habitat, and trucking salmon upstream in the fall.
Water Supply: Climate change, forestry and increased water demand have affected local water sources, causing wells to run dry in some years. Municipal watering restrictions occur annually. Summer droughts have also reduced surface water availability for agriculture in the Cowichan and Koksilah watersheds, leading to voluntary withdrawal restrictions, and impacts to food production, recreation and tourism. The weir at Lake Cowichan is no longer sufficient to address low summer and fall supplies in the Cowichan.
- Cowichan Lake Weir: The weir at the outflow of Cowichan Lake has been in operation since 1957. It is licensed and operated by Catalyst Paper and is used to control the outflow from the Lake into the Cowichan River, providing water for both environmental flows and industrial use. With changing weather patterns, decreased snowpack and longer drier summers, the current infrastructure has helped lessen those impacts but is now proving inadequate. For more about this situation, please visit weirready.ca and cowichanlakeweir.ca
- Koksilah Watershed Sustainability Planning: In recognition of the complex and long-term challenges facing the future of water supply in the Koksilah watershed, Cowichan Tribes First Nation has partnered with the BC Government through an Interim Letter of Agreement to pursue a better outcome for the watershed and its communities. Read more about that here.
Winter Flooding: Warmer winters are resulting in reduced “natural storage” in snowpack and increased flooding from Lake Cowichan all the way down to the Cowichan Tribes community near the estuary. Development and land use practices are also contributing to this problem. In November 2020, Cowichan Tribes received over $24 million to lead work to improve water storage and flooding issues to address climate change impacts in the watershed. Read our media release here.
Water Quality: Issues in the watershed range from shellfish toxicity in the estuary, to toxic algae in Quamichan Lake, to health risks associated with high E. Coli levels in some areas. See http://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/lower-cowichan-river-closed-to-recreational-use-due-to-bacteria-1.1317360 for one example of high bacterial counts due to low river flows.
Cumulative impacts–Damaged Habitats and Ecosystems: Land use practices have resulted in wide-scale aquatic and riparian habitat degradation throughout the watershed. Existing legislative tools (e.g. Riparian Areas Regulation, Fisheries Act) are not protecting habitats. Local organizations, including Cowichan Lake and River Stewards, Somenos Marsh Society, Cowichan Land Trust, Cowichan Estuary Nature Center, Cowichan Estuary Restoration and Conservation Association, BC Conservation Foundation, and local First Nation and other governments, are helping with riparian restoration projects and landowner education. However a comprehensive plan to address cumulative impacts is lacking.
Privately Managed Forest Lands: The majority of the watershed falls within privately managed forest lands, governed by the Private Managed Forest Land Act. As a result, significant resource management responsibilities are in the hands of forest companies. Local and Indigenous governments have limited ability to participate in and influence decision-making for these lands. Although various companies have efforts underway to improve forest practices, concern persists about the impacts of forest operations on the river and watershed. In July 2019 the Watershed Board submitted their concerns about private forest management to a BC Government Review panel. Read the document here.
More from our Partners
“If the people who live in a watershed are more involved in decision making, better outcomes might be achieved.” (Cowichan Co-Governance Conversations Workshop Participant, 2018).
Through five Target Working Groups, and other collaborations as needed, the Watershed Board’s successes are due in large part to the work, knowledge and dedication of indigenous people, dozens of local non-profits and stewardship groups, government agencies, and others. Here are some other links to check to learn more about the Cowichan watershed:
Cowichan Valley Regional District – Climate Change studies specific to Cowichan Region
Koksilah Working Group (Cowichan Station Area Association)
Catalyst Paper – monitoring data and resources for Cowichan water levels and snowpack
Related Documents Cowichan Basin Water Management Plan, March 2007 Westland Resources Group
More about the Cowichan Watershed
Ice-Age About 29,000 years ago, precipitation in the form of snow and a cold climate resulted in a period of glaciation that, upon its retreat about 10,000 years ago, formed the deep depression of Cowichan Lake, the much shallower depressions of Somenos Lake and Quamichan Lake, the channels of the Cowichan River and its tributaries, and the gravels, sands, and clays in the Cowichan Estuary.
Plants return As the climate began to warm, plants recolonized the land, watered by winter rain and snow. Up to five metres of water fell yearly on the peaks west of Cowichan Lake. Much of this precipitation would percolate into forest soils, where it would slowly flow into streams and enter aquifers. Annual floods carried soil into the flatter reaches of the Cowichan River, where it accumulated in fertile pockets.
Fish and other Animals Gradually, animals began to fill the ecological niches of the Basin. Salmon came to spawn in the gravels deposited in the Cowichan River. Juvenile fish found excellent rearing habitat in the lakes and channels of the Basin. The web of life in the Basin became complex and resilient.
Aboriginal people reached the Cowichan Valley not long after the glaciers receded. The people adapted themselves to the seasonal pattern of weather, fish, and plants, and a rich culture flourished in the Cowichan Basin for centuries.
In the mid 1800s, Euro-Canadian settlers arrived, bringing a different view of the Cowichan Basin. The new residents made big changes to the hydrologic system in the Basin.
Dykes were constructed to control winter floods that threatened roads, railroads, and settlement. Water was extracted from waterbodies and aquifers to meet increasing human demand. Farmers took advantage of the rich soils in the lower Basin and began to straighten and deepen streams to hasten drainage, drill wells, and extract water for irrigation. With settlements came pavement, storm drains, septic fields, and sewage treatment plants, all affecting water in the Basin.
Industry also needed water, and in the 1950s the government issued a water license to a pulp mill at Crofton to divert substantial volumes of water from the Cowichan River. A weir was built at the outlet of Cowichan Lake to store water for the mill.
In the past 150 years, the face of the Cowichan Basin has changed more than in the preceding 5,000. As the population and development increases in the Basin, so does the rate of change to the hydrologic cycle. Forestry, settlement, agriculture, recreation and tourism, industry, and cultural values compete for water in the Basin, often not leaving enough for healthy ecosystems.
Human impacts The old growth forests are nearly gone and forest soils are thinner, their water-holding capacity reduced. Wishing to be near the water, people build houses on the banks of rivers and lakes, removing riparian vegetation to improve access and views. More than 530 licences have been issued to extract water from streams and lakes in the Basin, and more than 1,300 wells have been drilled to pump water from the aquifers. Thousands of visitors come to the Basin each year to kayak, inner tube, swim, and fish in the lakes and streams and to hike and camp along the shores.
Catalyst Paper continues to withdraw water from Cowichan River for mill operation in Crofton.
Changing precipitation Seasonal fluctuations and unpredictable amounts of annual precipitation create water management challenges in the Basin. The Basin can experience floods in winter and spring and droughts in summer and fall, when water demand is at its peak. In recent dry years, low summer water levels in the Cowichan River system have put fish populations at risk and caused concerns about possible suspension of operations at the Catalyst Paper mill. Droughts also meant falling water levels in the streams and aquifers that supply many people with drinking water, and less water to dilute treated effluent discharges to the River. Water-based recreation, such as boating, swimming, and fishing, has also been affected by low flows in the River. These problems are likely to get worse in the future as climate change alters the hydrologic cycle of the Basin, bringing more intense winter rainstorms, less snowpack and earlier melt, and warmer summers.
A new relationship between people and water needs to be established to ensure that there will be reliable water supplies available for human use, thriving ecosystems, and a healthy economy in the Cowichan Basin, both now and in the future.
The Cowichan Basin Water Management Plan was published in March 2007
Cowichan Basin Water Management Plan, March 2007
Westland Resources Group
Water Facts, October 2005
Westland Resource Group
Water Issues, October 2005
Westland Resource Group