[The Discourse] Cowichan weir funding announcement celebrates collaboration and partnership

Group shot at weir March 22 2024

‘Working together, we can adapt to these changes and ensure a more positive future for our river, our salmon, our people and future generations,’ said Cowichan Tribes Chief Cindy Daniels.

About 20 people pose for a group photo, with a lake and weir infrastructure in the background
Cowichan water advocates and elected officials gathered at Saywell Park in Lake Cowichan on March 22, 2024 to celebrate a $14 million provincial funding contribution to raise the Cowichan Lake weir. Photo by Barry Hetchko

A small crowd gathered on the shores of Cowichan Lake on Friday, March 22 to celebrate a milestone in the decades-long project to build a higher weir and mitigate against the impacts of worsening summer droughts.

The B.C. government has promised $14 million towards construction costs, filling the funding gap on this massive infrastructure project.

Decades of advocacy and collaborative effort made this moment possible, and that sentiment was on full display at the media event, which included B.C. Premier David Eby, Cowichan Tribes Chief Cindy Daniels and others. 

“It is a pleasure to be here today on World Water Day,” said Daniels, who was elected as chief earlier this month. For Quw’utsun mustimuhw [Cowichan people], every day is Water Day. Hulitun tu qa’ — water is life.”

Among Quw’utsun mustimuhw, the river and salmon are recognized as relatives, Daniels added. 

“And our relatives have been suffering. Salmon have been trucked upstream, as there was not enough water for them to swim. Large pumps have been needed to keep the river flowing. Last year tens of thousands of salmon and trout died because there was not enough good quality water to keep them alive,” she said. 

“But we can take action. Working together, we can adapt to these changes and ensure a more positive future for our river, our salmon, our people and future generations.”

A woman in a women Coast Salish hat stands at a podium and three men stand behind
Cowichan Tribes Chief Cindy Daniels acknowledged a legacy of advocacy and partnership at the weir funding announcement. Photo by Barry Hetchko

“It’s no surprise to me that the Cowichan Watershed Board, Cowichan Tribes, Cowichan Valley Regional District [and] local governments have all partnered here together, because of the unifying nature of the river,” said Eby in his opening remarks.

But more collaborative work is needed before shovels hit the riverbottom, and it is no small thing. In order to make this project happen, the Province of British Columbia and Cowichan Tribes will have to nail down the fine print of a first-of-its-kind governance protocol for the weir. 

Read also: ‘The water will just be gone’: Urgent calls to support Cowichan Lake weir

The plan is for a management regime that gives the First Nation significant authority as Indigenous stewards of the watershed, without exposing Cowichan Tribes to the full legal and financial risk associated with holding the water licence for the weir. The province says it is willing to take the unprecedented step of carrying some of that risk.

“This has never been contemplated by the province before, in terms of us taking the responsibility and the legal indemnity over for a piece of infrastructure like this,” said Nathan Cullen, the minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship, in response to questions from The Discourse.

“We got a lot of very good lawyers working on it,” he said. “We’re leaning in, we’re trying to find an innovative way to make sure that everyone is kept whole and sound. But it is new for us as a province; we just don’t do this.”

Five bucks on five years

The Discourse has followed the story of efforts to raise the weir since the early days of its community reporting in the Cowichan Valley.

In the summer of 2019 I sat down with Tom Rutherford, who at the time was the executive director of the Cowichan Watershed Board, to talk about water issues in the Cowichan region. He explained why the weir replacement is such a priority project. 

The existing weir was built in 1957, and the planners figured out at that time how much water would need to be stored in the lake so that there would be enough for the pulp and paper mill in Crofton, with enough remaining to keep the environment healthy.

That system worked perfectly for about four decades, Rutherford said. But one year in the late 1990s, there wasn’t enough stored water to meet the minimum flow targets. “And it was shocking,” he said.

Rutherford added that out of the last 20 years, there were 12 times where there was not enough water to meet the minimum flow targets. 

And “in the last six years there hasn’t been enough to do that five times,” he said. 

In 2019 and again in 2023, the drought became severe enough to require water to be moved over the weir with massive industrial pumps. Water levels in the lake receded to unprecedented new lows.

Climate change promises that the bad drought years of today will be normal summers in 30 years, and the droughts of the future will look like nothing seen before. 

“We just need, collectively as a community, to put our heads to this, to figure out what our values are — what’s important — and to try and manage things so we can maintain our river and drinking water and our public health and our recreational opportunities,” Rutherford said.

I asked Rutherford, back in 2019, when he thought construction might start on the new weir. 

“I’ve got five bucks on the table saying five years,” he said.

two men pictured from behind
Tom Rutherford, whose work on the weir project goes back three decades, walks with Premier David Eby towards the floodgates of the existing weir infrastructure at Cowichan Lake. Photo by Barry Hetchko

We’re coming up on that five-year mark and maybe, just maybe, that prediction will be right on target. But there’s still no timeline for when the legal details will be signed and settled.

“Our work is not done,” said Daniels, who also carries the name ​​Sulsulxumaat, in her public remarks last week. “We will continue to work together with the province to develop the new and progressive governance protocols we need for our weir and our river moving forward.”

The province’s commitment to work through these issues represents an extraordinary shift, said Aaron Stone, co-chair of the Cowichan Watershed Board and mayor of Ladysmith, when I caught him for a short interview after the event.

“The answer we’ve had historically is that when it comes to water governance and liabilities in this challenge that we have, that it’s always been, ‘we don’t do that,’” Stone said. “Their willingness to engage is something that I’ve just never experienced in government before.”

Stone attributes the shift to the province’s commitment to reconciliation, including the specific commitments of B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and growing conversations around Indigenous governance of land and water.

He also credits Cullen and his ministerial staff for their willingness to work through the technical challenges and devote the resources to move the project forward.

“They raised the flags that say, ‘hey, this is something that’s really out of our comfort zone.’ But they’ve not closed any doors. And they’ve just made this commitment to continue to work on it and — recognizing that there’s an election this fall — with urgency, right, so that it can be resolved so that we can get to work,” Stone said.

“It kind of restores your faith in government a little bit,” he added.

On the shoulders of giants

In her opening remarks last week, Daniels took the moment to recognize the foundational work of chiefs who came before. 

“In recent years, our late Chief William Seymour and former Chief Lydia Hwitsum were strong advocates for the stewardship of our lands and waters around the council table,” she said. 

“During their terms as co-chair of the Cowichan Watershed Board, they worked hard to build support and funding to address climate impacts on our river and I raise my hands to them. I intend to continue on this path, as the well being of our community and the broader Cowichan community is connected to the health of our river.”

Joe Saysell, a longtime advocate for the Cowichan River, speaks with Aaron Stone, co-chair of the Cowichan Watershed Board, and Premier David Eby before the official weir funding announcement. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

“It is so good to recognize the many people who have come before us,” said Cullen, in response to Daniels’ remarks. 

“We get to stand here today in a good celebratory way, and recognize so many people that are here today and so many that are not. And for all those many, many years of work.”

Stone echoed those sentiments when he came up next to speak. 

“I can see the smiles and the excitement on the faces of everyone here,” he said. “Importantly, so many of the faces with smiles on them here are the shoulders that people like me get to stand on, on days like today.”

He acknowledged the gifts and lessons from Quw’utsun Elders as well as other advocates and teachers.

“I want to thank Chief Daniels and all of the predecessors that came before us, because we truly are standing on the shoulders of giants,” Stone said.

Collaboration requires work across differences and even across party lines. BC Green Party Sonia Furstenau, who represents the Cowichan Valley as MLA, is officially a critic and opponent of the provincial NDP government. And yet she was invited to stand and be publicly acknowledged for her local advocacy.

“This is not a typical thing, for us to welcome up a member of another party for a government announcement,” said Eby. “I’ll say, to her credit, she’s wrong less often than other opposition members,” he quipped.

“Sonia has been a very effective advocate for Cowichan, and certainly for this project,” Eby added. “I often have the opportunity to speak with Sonia about the issues and local community here, and she is a forceful advocate.”

The partnerships and collaboration that have brought the weir project to this point are worth celebrating and replicating, said Cullen. 

“I brag about this arrangement all over the province,” he said. “The leadership that’s shown here between First Nations and local government in partnership, and talking and working through the difficult issues, is something that the entire province can learn from.”

Photographers gathered to capture the Coast Salish carving that Cowichan Tribes Chief Cindy Daniels gifted to B.C. Premier David Eby. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

Daniels closed her official remarks by offering a gift to the premier on behalf of Cowichan Tribes. She gave him a Coast Salish carving of three salmon swimming together, in the same direction. 

The gift and gesture offered poignant reminders: Of the critical importance of the river, of millennia of Indigenous stewardship, of decades of local collaboration — and of the active work of partnership and reciprocity that is still needed to chart a course into the future.

Document Date: 28 Mar 2024
Author: Jacqueline Ronson
Location: Cowichan Lake