Two years of study needed before any move to raise Cowichan Lake weir

Peter Rusland, Cowichan News Leader Pictorial, Sept 17 2014

Rodger Hunter of the Cowichan Watershed Board tours the Cowichan Lake weirStoring more spring-runoff behind Cowichan Lake’s weir won’t win this summer’s battle against drought,  or probably next year’s either, officials indicate.

But last week’s Cowichan Valley Regional District decision to finally approve a seven-year-old recommendation that could lead to the raising of the weir may eventually help ensure reliable downstream water supplies for thirsty residents, Crofton mill owners, and fish habitat.

CVRD directors hope to wage war against climate change’s effects on a parched Cowichan River by working with senior governments, Cowichan Tribes, One Cowichan, the mill and other stakeholders to boost Cowichan Lake’s storage capacity, as called for in the 2007 Cowichan Basin Water Management Plan.

Strategies will see technical consultants study optics of raising the lake’s weir, and other ways to release and store more water. Those studies could explore pumping deep lake water over the weir in summer, and other ideas to save the river’s shaky salmon-spawning run.

Studies could take about two years, estimated CVRD environmental-policy manager Kate Miller.

“We can only hope,” she said of elusive, surefire ways to keep climate change, increasing use, gravel deposits, river alterations, and more from wilting the waterway. “The impacts to this region are enormous if we have a dry river.”

Its current flow of 4.5 cubic metres per second is controlled under the pulp mill’s two 1950s provincial licences.

Victoria’s OK is also needed to alter future flows at the weir. But it didn’t hurt having forests minister Steve Thomson, CVRD Chairman Rob Hutchins, and other brass hats tour the shriveling river last week.

“The minister made some supportive comments for us to use about having future management plans in place,” said Miller.

“We’re charged with reporting back to the board about how much water we need to store. Historic reports were done before we had a full understanding of climate change.

“We’ll look at alternatives, or a mix of alternatives, to ensure a long-term water supply. Obviously, we don’t want to be in this (drought) situation repeatedly,” she said.

Neither did Rodger Hunter of the Cowichan Watershed Board. He called the CVRD’s decision “great.”

“The issue is the process. It’s about (managing) flows in late winter, and early spring. You want to get this right.”

That means studying to “make sure everything is going to work well. Now there’s a clear go-ahead for the CVRD to spent money on analysis.”

Taxpayer study costs were unknown by press time. So were potential effects on lake properties if more water is stored to drain drought woes.

That’s why Lake Cowichan Councillor Tim McGonigle voted against Wednesday’s motion — and Youbou-Meade Creek Director Pat Weaver, a lake resident, intended to object but was distracted during voting.

McGonigle said his mix of nixes spanned gaining crucial senior-government authority to raise the weir or take other storage actions; costly liability if lake properties are hurt by lake storage, and hundreds of owners sue the CVRD; and vague technical knowledge about how best to store more water.

“I had concerns I didn’t have all the information and couldn’t make a sound decision,” he said.

Nor could Weaver. She worried about “the perfect storm” of a deep spring snow pack and heavy rains that could flood her home, again.

“Would they compensate us?” Weaver asked. “About 300 property owners share my concerns; would there be too much water, or not enough?

“The weir’s been there 50 years, so what condition is it in? Can the CVRD get control, and who gives permission to raise the weir and put in pumps?”

Miller had no answers either.

“I wish I had a crystal ball to tell me how much water we need, and how to get it,” she said.