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No assurance that water in Cowichan River now will help with summer drought

Rain in April and May will have greater effect on summer river conditions than high water now
Right now, water is flowing over the top of the weir, but, as can be seen in this photo, the situation can be quite different in a summer drought. (gazette file)

It’s likely a lot of Cowichan Lake residents think there’s plenty of water around for the summer of 2017, given the winter we’ve been having.

But, according to Cowichan River watcher Parker Jefferson, “We’re just about where we were last year.”

Panorama of Cowichan River

For the first time last year Catalyst, the owners and operators of the weir at Lake Cowichan, installed pumps, and were days away from having to use them to pump water from the lake into the river to prevent the river from running dry.

Jefferson warns we could be facing a similar dry season this summer.

That’s despite all the snow this winter.

“Yes, we got a lot of snow but it was also way colder than normal and that just translated into less precipitation. The important number is not just the temperature but also the precipitation. What we had will show up as below normal. In the end the snow that matters is the snow that’s up on tops of the mountains. We now have that snow pillow at Heather Mountain. It just went in last year. This is our second year of data on that,” he said.

(A snow pillow is a system for measuring the amount of actual precipitation in the snow that falls.)

“There is another snow pillow at Jump Creek on the Nanaimo River drainage which is, as the crow flies, not that far away. That is the one we had to use for reference before we put in our own snow pillow. And it is tracking about the same as last year as well.

“It looks like we’re approximately one-third below what used to be called the normal snow pack. Of course, there is no normal anymore. This may be our new normal and I expect it is.”

But, anyone standing on the car bridge in Lake Cowichan right now will see plenty of water flowing past.

“We’re above the top of the weir,” Jefferson said.

“The control period starts any time after April 1, which means we can start to control the flow in the river but we can’t do anything unless and until the lake drops below the top of the weir. It’s above now so it doesn’t matter what we do with the weir. As soon as the lake gets down to the level of the weir, that’s when the control gates will come into play.

“They’ll close the boat lock and we’ll start to control the flow in the river. We’re looking to start out the year with a full weir, which is as good a situation as we could want, but there is still concern because it always depends on what happens in April and May. We can’t store all the water we have now. It’s all going to go away. So, April 1, top of the weir: now we start the summer and we’re now hoping we get a lot of rain in April and May,” he said.

“It’s always going to be that way.

“Last year we had pretty dry and really hot weather in April that melted all the snow we had really quickly. If that happens again, we’re going to be in the same situation we were in last year.”