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Safety review underway at the Cowichan Lake weir

In other weir news, water flows are currently at about eight cubic meters per second; decent for this time of year.
The Cowichan Lake weir

Sparked by the accidental drowning death of local man Tyler Neal, a safety review is currently underway at the Cowichan Lake weir.

Although several warning signs are visible on-site, Neal's family was quoted in the press earlier this year requesting something more be done.

"It's certain death if you're anywhere more than two feet from shore," Neal's sister, Melanie said, a few days after her brother's death. "It looks like a whirlpool and there's a back eddy under the water you can't really see."

"We're not an absentee landlord," Catalyst Paper weir operator Brian Houle said, last week. "That's a situation where we're working with the Town of Lake Cowichan."

A surveyor has been spotted on-site recently, though mayor Ross Forrest said that nothing concrete has been planned.

"I haven't seen anything official, but Catalyst has contacted us," he said, of himself and his fellow elected officials. "I hope they plan on coming in and seeing us beforehand."

One plan includes having the entrance-way to the weir – where Neal's vehicle was found parked, June 15 of this year – fenced off; something that may be a catch-22, as it would block emergency access, while people are still able to swim up to that location.

"It does need some serious discussions," Forrest said.

Although there's been grumbling in town that Neal’s grieving family is looking for something to blame for his unexpected death, there is legitimacy to their safety concerns, Forrest said.

"I almost drowned there, so I know what the currents can do," he said. "I know what they're talking about there."

About 30 years ago, Forrest recalls swimming in the area, when he was pulled under by a current. It took him a while to convince his friends that he wasn't kidding around. Luckily, he had people to help him out of the water.

"I don't want to see anyone else drown there," Forrest said, adding that further safety measures will be undertaken.

Thus far, a strip has been whacked through a bushy barrier between the boat launch operator and the Cowichan Lake weir gates, so the area remains more visible.

Water flows are decent

In other Cowichan Lake weir news, the amount of water flowing from Cowichan Lake into the river is currently at eight cubic meters per second; a decent level for this time of year.

“What this means is because of this we’re able to satisfy everyone, in particular the fish,” Houle said. “Last summer it was a very different summer.”

Last summer, flows into the Cowichan River dipped to around six cubic meters per second. This is one cubic meter per second under the minimum flow stakeholders downstream and fish populations require.

This summer, thanks in large part to higher than usual snow pack, it’s actually been difficult getting the lake level down to a reasonable level.

In fact, it’s currently sitting about two centimeters above where it should be. That said, the current situation is better than last year’s, during which time it sat about 10 centimeters below the desired level.

The unusually high levels have resulted in fewer fish than usual getting stranded in side streams. This is thanks to a slower than usual ramping down of river flows, allowing fish more time to make their way out of their drying habitats.

Although things are looking fine and dandy at the moment, Houle cautions that anything can change during the summer.

The real test comes in September and October, when levels are at their lowest, and the fish pulses – surges of water to help push fish downstream – take place.

“Brian is doing the best job I’ve ever seen done in my 15 years here,” Cowichan Lakefront property owner Brook Hodson said. Hodson has also served as water levels sub-committee chair with the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society.

To Houle’s credit has been weekly conference calls with various stakeholders. Through gathering information from these meetings, Houle has been able to make holistic decisions with regard to the raising and lowering of the weir.

So far this year, Hodson, as a lakefront property owner, has nothing to complain about with regard to lake levels.

“If they stay at the rule curve, I don’t have a problem,” he said. “Anything within a couple inches, people aren’t going to complain. Brian’s led it right on track.”

One concern that the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society and the Cowichan Waterboard have been addressing in recent years has been the Cowichan Lake area’s lack of a snow pillow.

Snow pillows serve to transmit how much snow pack is available to Cowichan Lake, and help set the rule curve, which determines the ramping down procedure of the weir. About 10 years ago, government budget cuts led to the removal of the local snow pillow. Catalyst Paper now uses a snow pillow located near Nanaimo to determine how much snow pack is available.

“Everyone is focused on getting that back into operation,” Hodson said, of the local snow pillow.

Getting accurate readings of snow pack is necessary in ensuring decent water levels throughout the warm summer.

“You can’t recover the water after you let it pass by,” Hodson said.

With notes by Peter Rusland