Work didn’t start on preparing for pumping until September the last time Catalyst looked at it. (Gazette file)

VIDEO: Lake Cowichan council to grill Catalyst July 23 on ‘end run’ around weir pumping agreement

Councillors want community out in force at meeting to hear what’s going on with the weir

Lake Cowichan Mayor Rod Peters said he’s willing to stick his neck out, and even go to jail to fight for his council’s right to look after its people.

He, and the rest of town council are frustrated at the attitude of Catalyst, which runs the Crofton mill and the weir at Lake Cowichan that, in the summer, determines how much water flows down the Cowichan River. Council is upset that Catalyst is trying an “end-run” to change weir pumping rules without consultation, and they are concerned about the town’s drinking water intake, which is near where water would be pumped from the lake over the weir into the river.

“They have absolutely no social conscience with any of the municipalities or areas they are in. And they figure they can just come in and walk all over us,” Peters said.

He called on his colleagues to support him.

“I think it’s gone too far. I don’t care if I step on any toes or ‘p’ anybody off. I think we should stick to our guns. I think we should be unanimous as a council and just say, look: there’s rules. You signed papers. You’ve got to play by the rules, it doesn’t matter how big you are.

“If they want to force the issue, we’ll stop them. We have the last word . I’m not going to stand for it myself. If I have to do jail time, I could use the rest anyway,” he said, ending with a trade-mark Peters’ quip.

To address the issues, council is holding a meeting with the company on Tuesday, July 23, at 5 p.m. at Centennial Hall.

And, they want the community out in force to hear what’s been going on.

With water levels so low in Cowichan Lake, the possibility of pumping water over the weir from the lake to the Cowichan River, plus Lake Cowichan’s new drinking water treatment system being just up and running, there’s lot to chat about.

Councillors have been wrestling with the problem for a couple of weeks.

Town CAO Joe Fernandez said at the July 9 meeting, “We’ve been having ongoing issues with Catalyst wanting to make changes to their [pumping] proposal. The ministry had given them the go-ahead and had issued them a licence to undertake construction based on a report that was done last year. They were given a construction permit to undertake that work. Now they are looking to making some modifications. They have gone back to Island Health asking for an extension to their construction permit, and asking also for some changes. They have not undertaken consultation with council on that.”

He clarified later, during public question period, that the only reason the Town of Lake Cowichan knew anything about Catalyst’s possible change of plans was that someone from Catalyst had mentioned it to a Town worker.

Coun. Tim McGonigle was plainly unhappy about the situation, saying that “reluctantly” Lake Cowichan approved a plan back in late 2017 for Catalyst to go ahead with some adjustments to the water intake system, approved approved by Island Health, and the provincial government.

Plan alterations should, at least, be discussed “at this table,” he said.

Worries about Cowichan Lake levels started much earlier this year.

“We know that if the pumping, and when it does occur, those will be historic levels that we haven’t seen since 1955 before the weir was placed there,” McGonigle said.

“We’ve talked about a climate emergency. What about a health emergency within our water supply system? Is that not just as important? To be end-run by a corporation, in my opinion, without consultation, is dictating, not collaborating. I’m again very, very upset with the process.”

There could be implications to changing the plan in mid-stride.

“We as a municipality should have the authority on the permit. We may be over-run by the province and if we are, so be it, but we still have to think of the protection of our constituents,” McGonigle said.

Coun. Kristine Sandhu said, “We’re fighting two giants: Catalyst and the provincial government.

“All we’re trying to do is protect our community to ensure our residents never run out of water. We have a lot at stake with that.”

Any changes that might affect the water intake have to be discussed with council.

Sandhu said she did not want to “wake up in the night and we’re not going to have any water.”

She wanted to know where the buck stops.

“Who’s responsible for everything? If they do what they want to do, who’s going to be overseeing that? At the intake building, we’d have to have someone there manning it to make sure everything is all right. Because once they start pumping, they can’t stop until it starts to rain.”

Fernandez said that what concerned him was that Catalyst seemed to want to make modifications now the plan is in place.

“The same engineer who did the work originally is asking that it be changed so you begin to wonder what’s happening here,” he said.

Sandhu asked if it would it be appropriate to send a letter to Island Health and Fernandez said he had already done so.

“I think it might also be worthwhile for council to look at making a political run, talking to the minister,” he added.

This week, there was even more to add to council’s frustrations. Catalyst has apparently sent a crew onto Town of Lake Cowichan land to remove giant hogweed in the area near the weir, as well as a crane to haul in pumps, again without contacting the Town.

“They appear to have been going through residential properties without special permits,” McGonigle said. “I’m not begrudging Catalyst their licence to pump. I just don’t think that is good neighbourly conduct.” Even though that is Catalyst property, it resides within our municipality.

“And, this is the same corporation that took every municipality that it has infrastructure in to court on assessment for taxation. Let’s remember they’re a business, and, under the Charter, we cannot help and support a business.”

He said that with proper negotiation and consultation, there could be an amenable agreement, but “it has to be a two-way street. I’m very frustrated with the whole process. I hope there is a lot of people at that public meeting on Tuesday.”

The Town of Lake Cowichan has had to deal with this in the absence of a works superintendent, following the resignation of Trevor Auger. McGonigle told Sandhu that he had checked with the CVRD about borrowing one of their PEng employees becasue he’s interested in: the effect on our fire suppression flows, water quality, and turbidity.

That turbidity is still a problem because there needs to be a soda-ash system added to the new water treatment facility.

“The last thing I want, through [Catalyst’s] submerging pump, is for Island Health to issue a turbidity boil water advisory after we’ve spent $6.3 million on an upgraded water treatment plant. That’s ridiculous,” McGonigle said.

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Lake Cowichan’s weir has been constantly in the news this year, with the level of Cowichan Lake being so low. (Gazette file)

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