Board looks into causes of low water levels

High temperatures in the summer and a shrinking snow pack on the mountains in the winter have had

High temperatures in the summer and a shrinking snow pack on the mountains in the winter have had a devastating impact water levels in the Cowichan River and required creative approaches to the resulting problems—from sewage dilution to fish migration to ensuring enough water supply to keep the Catalyst paper mill operating.

And while a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations have been tackling these problems each year, the Cowichan Watershed Board (CWB) is now shifting its focus from the symptoms to the underlying cause.

On Monday, the Flows and Fish Working Group of the CWB presented its working plan to the board for how best to proceed on the issue of water flow in the Cowichan River.

“The flows and fish working group has for good reason been dedicated to crisis management every year as we run out of water. And the thought was we have to start concentrating on the big picture,” said Tom Rutherford, a community advisor with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and a member of the Flows and Fish Working Group.  “We have to define clearly in a short statement what we’re trying to do so that everybody understands. We have to define what we want with respect to river flows. And a lot of work has been done on it … but we haven’t landed on what the ask is. So we need to do that.”

Cheri Ayers, who co-chairs the working group with Lake Cowichan mayor Ross Forrest, gave a presentation to the CWB outlining the group’s proposed plan, which points to water storage in Cowichan Lake as the “big picture” issue that Rutherford alluded to.

“That’s what the work plan is about—identifying all the benefits and all the costs and all the impacts to creating more [water] storage,” she said. “I think there’s consensus among the people who have taken the time to understand the logistics of the hydrology and the watershed that increasing our storage is one of the main ways to address the problem. There are potentially other solutions but they come at some pretty big costs.”

Holding water in the lake for longer will mean raising the weir—a controversial proposal for some property owners around the lake who fear such a plan might result in the loss of their waterfronts.

Ayers said its too soon to know how much the weir would need to be raised and just what the potential impacts would be, which is why her group was proposing an extensive studying process over the next year and a “technical water level regime assessment,” which is a modelling exercise that looks at historic snow packs and in-flows of water into the lake to help determine how high the weir would need to be increased in order to store more water for longer.

Measurements would also need to be taken in spring 2017 when the lake water is naturally high.

“I don’t think everybody totally understands how water works in the lake. How the weir holds back water at certain periods of time but doesn’t control the level of the lake at other periods of time,” said Ayers. “Increasing storage would just shift the period time that water levels are at a certain height around the lake.”

The work plan presented to the CWB called for the drafting of a vision statement and principles by June, a stakeholders workshop in August and the determination of an optimal water release from the weir and river flow. In the spring of next year, the above-mentioned water level assessment would be conducted as well as technical reports on the impacts of elevated water levels.

The group hopes that by October 2017, it will be able to present a finalized proposal for the weir’s height increase.

The CWB supported the working plan, although its funding of more than $40,000 has yet to be allocated.

Area F director Ian Morrison sits on both the Flows and Fish Working Group and the CWB, and he said he felt optimistic coming out of the board meeting.

“I think the work plan needs to proceed, the funding needs to acquired,” he said.

“It’s not a questions of ‘should we fund them,’ it’s a question of going out and finding it. And I think we’ve been clear that to do the work shouldn’t be a simple request property taxes from local tax payers, it’s got to be other sourced funds.”

Ayers said if the working plan does not receive funding it’s simply going to take longer for problems with the Cowichan River to be resolved.

“The projections for our climate is its going to be wetter in the winter and dryer in the summer, so we’re going to be in crisis mode for longer,” she said.

“The sooner we can deal with it, the sooner we’ll have the answers to whether it’s feasible or not.”

The CWB’s next board meeting is May 30.