Sarah Simpson, Cowichan Valley Citizen, October 05, 2012
The Cowichan River could run bone dry before month's end if rain doesn't begin to fall by the bucketful, say some in the Valley's science community.
The record-breaking drought could drastically impede spawning salmon runs, put the mill's operations in jeopardy and even affect the village of Crofton's water supply, stakeholders like Paul Rickard worry.
Who's to blame isn't immediately evident, but the solution seems clear – there must be better management of the weir.
Rickard, an avid sport fisherman and longtime champion of Cowichan river ecosystems, said he believes provincial water stewardship officer John Baldwin and his colleagues buckled under the pressure of a few Cowichan lakefront residents, many who fear their beaches may be lost if more water was stored in the lake."Here we are in the driest fall on record and no water stored in the lake because the province would not allow a single drop to be stored from the spring rain," he said. "Now we're facing potentially significant fish loss."
Rickard said somebody has to speak for the future of the fish.
"It is truly sad that it takes a disaster to get people moving, (and) this is a disaster waiting to happen," he said.
Nanaimo-based Baldwin, whose hand is effectively on the weir's tap, would not agree to an interview and instead redirected the Citizen's queries to the ministry's media officer, Brennan Clarke, who explained it is all about licensing.
"We have presented a possible solution," Clarke said from his Victoria office.
Catalyst holds a licence right now and could agree to change the conditions of that licence or, Clarke noted, the more workable option is for a separate entity to take out another licence, which would allow for higher water levels in the lake.
Catalyst bosses declined to change the conditions of the licence and don't expect to in the near future, said Catalyst environment manager Brian Houle.
"We are heading towards – and each week we'll be closer to – a very difficult situation," he said.
"At this point it's not on the table with Catalyst to apply."
Clarke said the second solution is more likely.
"It's been made abundantly clear to the Cowichan Valley Regional District that they could apply for this second licence [but] they haven't done it," he said. "They probably have their own reasons for that."
CVRD Chair Rob Hutchins said a recommendation to apply for a licence, initiated by the Cowichan Watershed Board, would in fact be before the board Oct. 10.
But just whose name is on the application remains up in the air.
"There is a fairly lengthy process to apply for that.there are some costs involved and a significant amount of time as well," Hutchins said. "The options are Cowichan Tribes, the CVRD, the DFO for example, but ultimately the responsibly is with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources."
Crofton mill's provincial licence stipulates a minimum flow from Cowichan Lake must be seven cubic metres per second.
Concessions have been made in an attempt to slow the outfall and water now flows out at 5.9 cubic metres per second.
Brian Tutty is a retired DFO biologist, with 37 years of work on the Cowichan River, and knows the river's history of issues related to water scarcity and salmon.
"It's not how low can you go and what's safe to go lower," Tutty said. "It's why do we have to when we have the biggest reservoir on the Island?"
The solutions are there, he said, but it comes down to politics.
"If we can keep everybody moving towards an active, well-managed watershed with capacity to sustain droughts, everybody has a healthier watersheds," he said.
"But fighting over the issues and finding blame is not helpful."
Tutty said the situation requires strong political leadership. "Perhaps bureaucrats aren't allowed to lead anymore in the current governance of provincial or federal politics," he said.
"So it needs an educated populace to want to lead this and then the politicians will follow."
Part of next Wednesday's CVRD debate will be "is this a form of (provincial) downloading of responsibilities?" Hutchins said.
"That ministry is actually responsible to ensure there are adequate flows for fish and wildlife."
Hutchins also brushed off ideas the CVRD would tread lightly on taking out a water licence to avoid the wrath of lakefront property owners angry about the possibility of losing their beaches.
"This is not raising the weir," he said. "This is better managing the weir." A shift of inflow into the lake, believed to be a result of climate change, combined with what appears to be a change of practice by ministry staff on how the weir is managed, has led to the problem, he said.
In June Cowichan Tribes, Duncan, Lake Cowichan and regional district officials met with Forests Minister Steve Thomson, and asked the province to honour its historical practice in managing the weir.
"We asked them to ensure that the abundance of water that we had that spring could be managed to ensure, if there was an extended spell of dry weather like we have now, it would be preserved and retained for that," Hutchins said.
"Unfortunately the decision by the staff out of Nanaimo was that, 'No, we're going to follow recent practice,' and they dumped the water."
© Cowichan Valley Citizen 2012