Workers atop the weir in Lake Cowichan set about installing 20 pumps along its north side. If necessary

Catalyst completes pump installation at Cowichan Lake weir

Twenty pumps are now underwater at the weir, installed and ready to go, which leaves one big question:

Twenty pumps are now underwater at the weir, installed and ready to go, which leaves one big question: will it be necessary to turn them on?

Last week, crews were hard at work installing the equipment that will ensure water flow over the weir in the event that lake levels drop below 161 metres, which is when the weir reaches “zero storage.” The pumps are located on the north side of the weir near the boat lock.

Catalyst Paper Corporation, which owns the weir and relies on water from the Cowichan River in order to power its mill in Crofton, received a licence earlier this year to pump water from the lake and into the river.

Originally the plan was to use diesel-powered pumps, however, that changed following consultations with BC Hydro.

“They identified to us that they have adequate power available, relatively close by at the weir, and so we went into the details that we actually could put transformers up at the weir and put up permanent infrastructure to have electric — quiet, no fumes, no noise electricity — readily available at the weir,” said Brian Houle, environment manager at Catalyst.

He said this option was less expensive than diesel but still not cheap.

“As we sit here today, that half-a-million absolutely will have been spent and not recoverable, and we might not have to pump this year. But we will have been ready to pump if we needed to pump, if it was necessary.”

Houle said the issue of water levels and storage in the lake is one Catalyst has been considering for the past 20 years. The exceptionally dry springs and summers Vancouver Island has experienced in recent years has thrown the need for a long-term solution into stark relief.

Pumps at the weir are not that solution.

“It is intended to be a short-term, get-you-through-a-crisis type application,” said Houle, referring to the application process to have the pumps installed. Catalyst has a licence to pump water from the lake for a maximum of 49 days each year for two years. “The long-term proper, permanent fix is replace the weir.”

To rebuild the weir, increasing its storage capacity, would cost $10 million according to Houle.

For now, the pumps will be in place as a last ditch safeguard against the Cowichan River running dry. Those pumps are surrounded by protective screens that prevent fish or other living creatures from being sucked in. The pumps are located on the lakebed alongside the weir.

Because of recent rainfall, the earliest pump date was moved from Sept. 26 to some time in October.