Cowichan Tribes hatchery staff dumping chinook above Skutz Falls.

Cowichan Tribes hatchery staff dumping chinook above Skutz Falls.

River problems far from over: rain helps

Change in weather has not stopped local stewardship groups from being concerned

The change in weather has not stopped local stewardship groups, the CVRD, and Cowichan Tribes from being concerned about the health of chinook salmon and their ability to spawn, nor their demand that local management of Cowichan River water flows is a must.

As of Friday, a total of 250 adult chinook and 100 jacks were able to make it up the river due to a pulse from the weir at Lake Cowichan, amping up water flow from 5 cubic meters per second to 14 cubic meters per second, according to Andrew Thomson, DFO south island director.

This pulse was the result of a conference call on Tuesday, Oct. 9 between Catalyst, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and other interested groups.

However, chinook have also been trucked up the river in order to help them get to their spawning grounds.

“The first two days the traffic truck moved 272 adult chinook and 178 jack chinook,” said Thomson.

The movement of these fish came about through a partnering of DFO with Cowichan Tribes.

“DFO has had lots of advice given on this and it’s a great effort and we certainly support the effort, but this is the work of the Cowichan Tribes and the Cowichan Tribes Hatchery staff,” said Thomson.

Cowichan Tribes, along with groups such as One Cowichan, a newly launched online petition created by a few concerned residents of the Cowichan Valley who feel there are many people who care about the Cowichan, and who believe that area residents must work together to keep the Cowichan watershed healthy, feel that the real issue is that of the need to create more local management of Cowichan River water levels.

In a press release sent out on Friday, Oct. 12, Chief Harvey Alphonse, vowed that a new day is coming regarding Cowichan Valley water usage, “one that in times of drought protects Cowichan River fish habitat and fisheries from incompatible water use, such as those of industry.”

Since the dissipation of pulse water levels, flow from the weir has been reduced back to 5 cubic meters per second as of Thursday in response to drought conditions, according to Cowichan Tribes.

“However, Catalyst was allowed to continue diverting river water at 1.9 cubic meters per second,” reads the Cowichan Tribes press release.

“This is unacceptable,” said Alphonse. “The Department of Fisheries and Oceans along with the province have allowed the Catalyst mill to continue diverting water at our expense. They’ve put Catalyst’s commercial use of water ahead of fish habitat and fisheries protection.”

On Oct. 5, Cowichan Tribes closed the chinook fishery to its members in response to low water levels in the river.

“Solutions are needed going forward,” said Alphonse. “The Crown and any stakeholders can change operations of the existing weir, expand water storage in the lake, conserve aquifer water and temporarily reduce water diversion from the river. If they don’t, I’m not going to tolerate low water flows in late summer anymore. They will leave Cowichan Tribes no choice but to take steps to steward fisheries and protect our members’ food supply by enforcing our priority right to fish.”

Parker Jefferson, of One Cowichan, agrees that the ability to locally manage water flows is needed.

“We have decided to try to get the Provincial Government to take out the necessary (their term) water license as it is their responsibility to manage water resources,” said Jefferson. “We will wait for their response.  [In the] long term we want more local control. Legal opinions are being pursued.”

Though Cowichan Tribes and groups such as One Cowichan and the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society would like to utilize existing infrastructure to hold back more water in Cowichan Lake during the spring to help mitigate dry conditions such as we have seen this summer, in a letter to Rob Hutchins, mayor of Ladysmith in June of this year, Larry Barr, director of resource management, Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, maintains that “to store water above the full supply level as noted in the current license held by Catalyst Paper, an additional storage license is required,” and “to change the rule curve operation would require an amendment application from the current holder of the licenses, Catalyst Paper.”

The province goes on to say that it does “not believe it should unilaterally alter long-standing agreements on water usage in the area, but is willing to help facilitate a community-derived solution, endorsed by local government with the proper licenses in place. At a town hall meeting in 2008, the community clearly expressed its desire to see Catalyst adhere to the existing terms of its licence. Any water releases that were allowed this year were done in compliance with this licence. To date no applications for water licences or amendments to existing licences have been received.”

Bill Routley, MLA for the Cowichan Valley, says the provincial government “has clearly failed to listen to community leaders warning of the need to protect fish habitat.”

He goes on to say that the Minister of Environment has a responsibility to act.

“What did the minister do with the concerns about fish presented to the minister? The minister is downloading responsibility for protection of fish and dependent wildlife to the local community. Does the minister have responsibility to protect our B.C. fish, water and the environment, and if so what will you do, and when?” said Routley.

Lake Cowichan Mayor, Ross Forrest also feels that more could have been done to prevent drought conditions in the Cowichan River.

“I think a lot of this could have been prevented if they would have not flushed the water down the river,” said Forrest.

“All the stakeholders of the Cowichan should have more say. The government asking for someone else to take out another license is just more downloading. The only way I think we can put pressure on [the provincial government] is by collaborating with all the different groups in the Cowichan. All those advocacy groups have big concerns, and that’s their passion. Those people should be listened to.”