Cowichan Tribes, local governments call on province to help fund project.
People in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island say they have a “shovel-ready” solution to frighteningly low river levels — but they need the province to cough up funding.
Lydia Hwitsum, elected chief of Cowichan Tribes, is one of those people.
“I’ve lost sleep about the level of the water, the quality of the water, the temperature of the water, and the way the natural world and all the species of fish are reacting to that as well,” said Hwitsum.
The Cowichan River flows through the traditional territory of the Cowichan people. It’s a significant source of food, supports the nearby forests, and is “a source of spiritual strength” according to Hwitsum.
Hwitsum co-chairs the Cowichan Watershed Board with Cowichan Valley Regional District Chair Aaron Stone. The board is advocating for a new weir to better support the region ecologically, culturally and economically.
Weirs are dam-like structures which store water behind them, and can control the amount of water that is released. They are shorter than dams, meaning they don’t flood the area behind them.
A 70-year-old weir controls water in the Cowichan River — but it is too short for modern needs.
As summers become increasingly dry, advocates say they need a higher weir. It would collect more water during the rainy season, which would allow for more water to flow in summer, when rain is becoming less frequent.
Without additional water, the river can become so shallow that it can’t support fish — either because it’s too dry or because the water that remains becomes too hot.
There’s also a risk that streams will dry up completely.
There have been calls for a new weir for more than a decade, but advocates now have a design ready to go — and say what they need next is money.
The design is the result of collaboration between Cowichan Tribes, Cowichan Valley Regional District, and Catalyst Paper Corporation — which owns and operates the current weir because it supports their pulp and paper mill in Crofton.
“We have everybody we need around the table in order to take these next steps,” said Hwitsum.
While the design work was supported by a $4.1 million contribution from the provincial government, Hwitsum said the province now needs to step up and match funding promised by the federal government to get the weir built.
Engineering work done in 2021 estimated the project would cost $20 to $24 million to build, not including liability and operational costs.
Cowichan Tribes has secured $24 million dollars from the federal government for a river resilience project, some of which would go towards weir construction. Hwitsum is urging the province to provide funding now, before construction costs escalate.
River used to be a place to escape the heat
Aaron Stone, who co-chairs the Cowichan Watershed Board with Hwitsum, grew up in the Cowichan Valley.
He acknowledges he does not have the same cultural connection to the region as Hwitsum and other Cowichan people, but he says the river is a lifeblood for everyone in the region.
Standing in the hot sun along the banks of the river, Stone said it used to be a place where you came to get cool, and that it’s “not normal” to feel so hot there.
He said it would be a meaningful act of reconciliation for governments to step up and fund a new weir.
“I think we all deserve to be able to enjoy the river, but not just that, everything that it supports,” said Stone. “The estuary health, the health of the bays outside of the estuaries and all along the river channels, all the side channels all the way up to Lake Cowichan.”
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship wrote: “We continue to work and meet with the Cowichan Watershed Board to explore opportunities for provincial support for the weir project.”
An opportunity to rethink water governance
There is an additional complicating factor with the weir: licensing.
Projects such as weirs generally require water licences, which must be purchased from the province. Catalyst Paper holds the licence for the existing Cowichan weir, because it pulls water to run its mill.
But there’s no clear answer on who would pay for a licence for a new weir.
Hwitsum said it’s time to take another look at such governance models.
“We need to step up, re-organize governance around the weir and assert Cowichan Tribes rights and title, and not only rights and title, but responsibility.”
She said the nation takes its responsibility to care for the river seriously.
With files from Claire Palmer
Full story: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/as-river-levels-drop-people-on-vancouver-island-say-a-weir-would-help-them-adapt-1.6912797