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Pumps removed as river replenished

Blink and you may have missed them — the pumps at the weir in Lake Cowichan are gone
Crews atop the weir in Lake Cowichan remove the pumps and associated equipment with the aid of a large crane. Catalyst removed the pumps as soon as it had determined recent rainfall was enough to keep the river flowing without their aid.

Blink and you may have missed them — the pumps at the weir in Lake Cowichan are gone, removed exactly two weeks after they were commissioned.

On Oct. 13, crews took the 20 pumps from atop the weir, installed last month and officially commissioned on Sept. 29. The decision was made when Catalyst Paper’s environment manager, Brian Houle, determined rainfall over the Thanksgiving weekend has been enough to keep the river flowing for the rest of season.

“Because of the way that the lake can rise so fast, we didn’t want to be stuck with all that gear in the lake as [the water’s] just blistering through,” Houle said, referring to the high speeds at which the water can move through the weir.

Catalyst was renting the pumps from Canadian Dewatering, and Houle said keeping them any longer than necessary would be extremely costly. The paper company has already invested $500,000 this year on the pumps, including the installation of transformers by the boat lock that allow the pumps to be powered by BC Hydro electricity, rather than through diesel generators.

Whether the pumps will be needed next year remains to be seen. Houle said it is not a given that the company will be putting them in.

“[There are] way too many variables to say to you today what we’re going to do next year,” he said, adding that he will be monitoring lake levels “like a hawk.”

If water levels next year are like those in 2013 — which were above or around the crest of the weir until late July — the pumps won’t be necessary. However, if next year’s conditions are similar to 2015 or 2016, it will be another story.

Deciding when to make a call on ordering the pumps is tricky, Houle said, noting that if they wait too long, there might not be pumps available to rent in time to keep the river from going dry. Back in the spring, when Catalyst received its licence to pump water over the weir, Houle was convinced their 49 allowable days of pumping would not be enough.

He said he is holding out hope that next year will be better, and noted that prior to 2016, the worst year for water levels was 1998.

“[That] was one of the worst years ever. And then ‘99 was a record snow year,” he said. “The implication being that mother nature may be somewhat predictable in that after she gives us one of these crazy dry years that the winter following will tend to be a heavy snowfall year. Well let’s hope so.”

Since May, the weir was releasing water at a reduced rate of 4.5 cubic metres per second. After the rainy Thanksgiving long weekend, that release was quickly amped up to 7 CMS, then 10 CMS and then 17 CMS over just three days.

Mayor Ross Forrest was pleased with the sudden change in the river’s condition.

“It’s nice to see the river going up every day. They’re putting more and more flow into it,” he said, also noting how unpredictable the weather can be in this part of the province.

Forrest had previously expressed some concerns about the potential impact that pumping might have on the town’s water intake. With the pumps gone, he said he’s glad that isn’t something the town had to potentially grapple with this year.

“Relief. That would be the first word that comes to mind,” Forrest said. “I fully understand the need for the pumps and why they were put in place but thankfully they weren’t necessary.”