If weir construction doesn’t start soon, the Cowichan River could go dry in the summer, local experts say.
By November 10, 2023
Calls for the province to support the construction of a new weir in Cowichan Lake are stronger and filled with more urgency than ever.
These calls come on the heels of a summer that saw one of the most significant fish die-offs in the Cowichan River in recent decades. Cowichan Tribes, the Cowichan Watershed Board, the Cowichan Valley Regional District and Paper Excellence — the owner of the Catalyst Crofton paper mill, and the operator of the existing weir — have been working together, with community input, for about three decades to come up with a plan that ensures water flows in the river are healthy enough for fish and people through the summers. The best solution, they say, is to replace the existing weir with a higher one so more water can be stored in the lake during the rainy seasons and released into the river during periods of drought.
The project is shovel-ready, according to Cowichan Watershed Board strategic priorities director Tom Rutherford. But another $14 million in funding is needed to build the weir, as well as some big decisions around ownership and responsibilities associated with the weir. Weir project partners and community members are now urging the province to support with funding and take on some weir-related responsibilities.
Meanwhile, the need for a new weir is becoming more urgent and time sensitive. This summer, pumps were required to pull water from the lake into the river in order to maintain minimal flows necessary for salmon to survive. But Rutherford says there’s a chance the licence to run these pumps won’t be renewed when it expires in 2028.
“If you think about it, this project is what water sustainability for our community looks like. This is what a healthy river looks like. This is what salmon for the future looks like. This is what a positive economic future for our valley looks like. This might be that first stumbling step down the path of reconciliation to ensure that Quw’utsun people have the ability to practice cultural and spiritual practices on the river and harvest fish on the river,” Rutherford says.
Why do we need a new weir?
For millennia, the Cowichan River has been central to the livelihood of Quw’utsun people, and it continues to define the region for both Indigenous people and settlers. The river provides water for fish, wildlife, vegetation and people and is an ecological feature that is valued by many.
“Even just reflecting on the last five years, we’ve started talking about water in a different way — being in relationship with water, being in a place to recognize its value,” Hwitsum says. “When we think about flows and the river, it’s not just ‘what does the industry need?’ It’s not just ‘how much can we take before it’s too late?’ Or just being able to think about flows for fish. We’re talking about Indigenous water flows. What are the needs of Quw’utsun people in terms of our reliance on the river and the many ways that we are in relationship with the river?”
The Cowichan River is in a unique position because it connects to one of the largest freshwater lakes on Vancouver Island. The lake serves as a natural reservoir for the water, and water levels are maintained by precipitation and runoff from snowpacks in the surrounding mountains. The snowpacks also serve as a cold reservoir, providing the river with water flows through the spring and early summer as they melt. But as summers become increasingly hot and dry due to climate change, the snowpacks are also melting quicker and earlier, and Rutherford says there may come a time when they no longer exist.
Climate change is impacting weather and water flows, and will continue to do so. Rutherford notes that the drought conditions in 2023 will be considered a normal summer in 2050, when drought conditions are projected to be even more damaging and severe.
“So we have a river that supports salmon and supports all of us, and we have a climate that’s changing,” Rutherford says. “And I think that’s why a conversation about the weir is very relevant to us.”
The current weir at the lake was built in 1957 and can hold back close to one metre of water. For the first 40 years of its existence, Rutherford says it never failed to store enough water for sustainable environmental flows in the summer. But the weir has failed to store enough water in 15 of the last 20 summers.
With natural storage from snowpacks depleting and not enough storage being provided by the current weir, Rutherford says there’s strong rationale to replace the weir with one that can store more water. And replacing the weir with one that is 70 centimetres taller was a key recommendation in the 2018 Water Use Plan, developed by Cowichan Tribes, the Cowichan Watershed Board, Cowichan Valley Regional District and Catalyst Paper (now owned by Paper Excellence).
“For the first 30 years of my career, I always was kind of a non-interventionist … If we stopped screwing up, nature was going to fix it, right? But we screwed up so much now that there’s no going back and I’m more of an interventionist,” Rutherford says. “And I think we need to start taking some risks and trying some things to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change.”
Summer drought impacts highlight need for new weir
This summer, thousands of fish died in the Cowichan River due to what Rutherford says are compounded impacts. Water levels were low, which meant water temperatures were too high for fish to thrive. Higher water temperatures also encourage the growth of algae and other bacteria, and oxygen levels in the water were depleted while pH levels were too high. It was the largest fish die-off that Rutherford says he has ever seen.
Towards the end of the summer, water levels became so low that 20 pumps were turned on to pull water from the lake into the river. They ran for 36 days and brought lake levels to historic lows, impacting the shoreline and the threatened Cowichan Lake lamprey species, Rutherford says.
If the raised weir had already been in place it would have been able to hold in water from the significant springtime rains that the region saw in May, according to Rutherford. The pumps might not have been needed.
Those pumps were the only reason why flows were sustained in the Cowichan River towards the end of the summer, and any power outages or failure of the pumps would be damaging.
“You’re pumping into a river, which keeps me awake at night because there’s not redundancy built into that system. There’s no backup generators. If the grid were to go down, we’d be out in the field,” Rutherford says.
Due to the negative impacts on the lake from using the pumps, there’s also a strong chance the licence to run them won’t be renewed in 2028, Rutherford says. The weir will take two years to build and another year and a half for licensing and legal processes. No pumps and no raised weir could mean no water in the river down the line.
“We have four years to get our act together, because four years from now, if we’re in this situation, there will be no pumps. The water will just be gone,” Rutherford says.
Two major hurdles to weir construction
Planning and engineering, community consultations and considerations of impacts on nearby properties have already been undertaken over the last few years. In fact, Rutherford says the process to plan for the weir has been considered just as extensive — if not more — than what was done for the Site C Dam project and has won awards.
Now, project partners are hoping to overcome two major hurdles in order to start the weir construction process — and they’re asking the province for support.
The first hurdle is financial. Design work for the weir was supported with funding from the province to the tune of $4.1 million. A couple of years ago, the cost to construct the weir was estimated to be between $20 to $24 million, but as costs are increasing, that number might be a few million more. Rutherford says work is being done to provide a more accurate estimate.
In 2020, Cowichan Tribes received $24 million from the federal government to support a watershed resilience project and some of it has been earmarked for the weir construction. Weir project partners say another $14 million is needed before weir construction can begin. Stipulations are also in place that say the rest of the funding for the weir needs to be acquired first, before the federal government can release the funds it has promised.
Individual project partners do not have the financial resources to fund the weir construction themselves, so they’re asking the province to step up and help fund the project.
“I don’t think it’s realistic for the province of B.C. to expect a local government to be responsible for climate change mitigation,” Rutherford says.
The second major hurdle has to do with determining responsibilities related to the new weir.
Rutherford says the owner of the weir is responsible for costs related to operations and maintenance — which are ongoing and could amount to around half-a-million dollars. The second financial responsibility that the owner and licence holder needs to take on is related to liability. If some sort of weir failure occurs, the owner will be responsible for associated costs.
Finally, property owners around the lake might be impacted by higher lake levels. Rutherford says the weir wouldn’t flood out any properties — and extensive work has been done to ensure this is the case — but lake levels will be higher in the spring resulting in some loss of beach. Compensating property owners for this loss of property will also be the responsibility of weir licence holders. But the cost of this has yet to be determined, and is decided by the water licences and approvals branch with the province once the licence for the weir is submitted.
“So they’re the arbitrators. They get to say, ‘you’re losing something, but we don’t think it’s worth compensation, or we think you should be paid $10 million.’ … So the point is, nobody knows until that licence application goes in. And then even, once there’s a decision, it can be appealed to the environmental team,” Rutherford says. “But in order for the licence application to go in, someone has to accept that [responsibility] not really knowing what it’s going to be.”
The financial and legal responsibilities associated with the weir are not insignificant, and are a lot for one of the project partners to take on, so they’re asking the province to step in and support.
“We’re not asking for the province to take full ownership, but to play a role as a backstop for those big ticket items,” Rutherford says.
Weir project partners have been meeting monthly to figure out how to push the project forward. Conversations have included determining responsibilities associated with the weir and advocacy with the province to seek out financial support. They’ve been working in partnership on this project for decades, Rutherford says, and it’s a partnership they’re hoping the province will also be a part of.
“The partners have completed a great deal of work over the last couple years to bring the project to this point, and we certainly want the project to commence as soon as possible. The main issue at this time is funding,” says Kris Schumacher, communications manager with the CVRD.
Hwitsum, who is a co-chair for the Cowichan Watershed Board alongside CVRD board chair Aaron Stone, says they met with B.C. Premier David Eby at the Union of B.C. Municipalities Convention in September to discuss the weir. Hwistum says it was a good meeting and that they have requested another opportunity to discuss provincial support.
Quw’utsun Nation Alliance also recently met with B.C.’s ministers for Land, Water and Resource Stewardship; Forests; and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. Hwitsum says that at the meeting, she advocated for the river and weir funding. Quw’utsun Nation chiefs also spoke about the importance of the river and Hwitsum says the ministers made some “positive statements,” including that B.C. should consider funding the weir.
“There are many things we agree on and don’t agree on, but I want to reference nutsa’maat shqwaluwun [working as one heart and one mind],” Hwitsum says at a weir presentation held at VIU Cowichan at the end of October. “When it comes to water, we’re going to work together.”
Community members step up
The fish die-off in the river this summer had several community members concerned, and Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society president Jim Deck says members of the society were wondering what they could do.
“With the situation we had on the river this summer, … this theoretically wouldn’t have happened if we had a bigger weir that was holding back more water,” Deck says.
Deck says the society spoke with Rutherford, who explained he was writing a letter to the province on behalf of weir project partners advocating for funding and support. The society members decided they would do the same, and have since launched a letter-writing campaign.
At a recent presentation at VIU Cowichan about the weir project, volunteers with the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society were seated at the entrance, greeting attendees and handing them a letter template so they could write their own. The template has been circulated online as well.
“We’ve put out this call for people throughout the Cowichan Valley to write letters to the provincial government, starting with Premier David Eby and working down the list,” Deck says. “You can write the same letter to everyone and just ask for something to be done here in short order.”