I attended the public meeting held by the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations on Saturday, March 9 and must confess I was a little underwhelmed by the proceedings. I have been very closely involved with the weir, lake and river level management situation for many months now and I found the presentations to be way too technical and somewhat confusing.
There was almost no information on why water storage is necessary in the first place. There was not enough time allotted for questions and limiting questions by participants was not the best way to make sure everyone left the meeting well informed. There was no presentation from our First Nations to explain their reliance on ample river levels for the health and welfare of their community, a glaring omission in my view. We were being talked down to by the powers that be and many of us in the audience think that was not good enough.
The first speaker, Bryan Symonds, deputy comptroller of water rights for the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Ministry, stated that he alone will make the decisions on any operating procedures to be used with our weir. He will listen to the presentations and comments and will look at submissions by any affected individuals and make the call by himself from his office in Penticton.
I talked with him after the meeting and I am confident he is a very smart man and he clearly understands all the technical issues. I am sure he will do the best he can to make the right decision, but he lives in Penticton. He will not see the water lapping up on private property or see the fish dying in the river for lack of water. He certainly does not rely on returning salmon to put food on his table as some in our First Nations community do.
I will try to explain the data that was presented at the meeting as clearly as I can. There is a web page that has lots of very good information on it at env.gov.bc.ca/wsd/cowichan.html. On it you will see graphic representations of various weir proposals and a link to the LiDAR imagery. The LiDAR section is fascinating and shows about 800 waterfront properties with aerial photographs, so if you live on the lake you can find your house and property.
Superimposed over aerial photographs are coloured lines that represent the lake at various levels: the 200 year flood level is a red line, the usual high water mark in winter is represented by a blue line, property lines are in orange and usually below the property lines is the lake level at the top of the weir represented by the green line. Above the green line is a yellow shaded area representing the impact of 20 centimeters being added to the height of the current weir.
In 350 of the 800 properties on the lake, the green line representing the top of the weir and the yellow area representing adding 20 centimeters to the weir are below the property lines, meaning there will be no additional storage on private property in those cases.
It is easy to see that the proposed increased summer storage of water is well below where the water is all winter. In fact, the lake level when the weir is at maximum storage that is possible in summer is 1.6 meters below the high water mark in winter. That is over five feet below winter water levels, so you do not need to worry about increased flood risk when the weir is full, as it is most years in early July. Even if the weir is raised by 20 centimeters the lake level would be more than four and a half feet lower in summer than it is on average in the winter.
It is not possible for Symonds to authorize an additional 20 centimeter storage over the top of the weir unless somebody applies for another water license. That is not going to happen, so the only proposal on the table is one to delay releasing water from the weir and lowering the lake level below maximum storage (green line) from July 9 to July 31.
The lake level will then meet the normal rule curve on Sept. 15, ensuring that the lake has plenty of room available to absorb any early fall rains without increasing flood risk. This small increased storage will help increase the probability that the river will not run dry in fall and there will be enough water for fish migration.
Why is this increased early summer water storage in the lake being proposed? The best analogy I can think of is money in the bank. Think of our river as a junior employee in a shrinking company. We could be laid off at any time so it is best to save money in case our income is interrupted. In the same sense, we are at the mercy of climate change, our summer precipitation has decreased by 35per cent since the 1960s and winter snowpack is reducing by 1per cent per year on average. That means summer inflows to the lake are going down and the downward trend is increasing.
We usually get a significant amount of rain in June and early July. Think of how many times you have wondered in late June if summer will ever get here. We have the ability in the weir to save this water in the lake and bank it all summer (at levels well below where the water is in the winter), and use it in the late summer and fall to keep the river running at a reasonable level until the fall rains come.
The river is the lifeblood of our community and we must do all we can to maintain its health and to plan for the changes that are coming to our climate. We need a long-term plan and many of our community leaders think this will not be possible under the current governance model. Nobody has all the answers here, but we do not think they will come from one man working for the government in Penticton doing his best to comply with priorities, policies and procedures.
We need more local control of our water resources and we need to hear from everyone in our community about how best to do this. Those who may be affected by increased water storage in summer need to be heard and clearly understood.
Our recreational sector is growing in importance and has a stake in maintaining good flows in the river.
Our First Nations’ community currently has no say in water management, when the health of our river has always been directly related to the health of their community.
Our chinook salmon are vulnerable and at risk for extinction if the river runs too low and warm in the fall. The local J Pod of killer whales that frequent the ocean around us depends on the chinook for 90 per cent of their diet. In low chinook years the elderly and weak whales die. In a sense, J Pod is threatened by low water levels in our river. Everything is connected.
The One Cowichan group is leading an initiative to make local control of our watershed an important issue in the coming provincial election. We want to get thousands of people in our community to pledge to only vote for a candidate that will support transfer of control of our water resources to local authorities, including First Nations as full partners. This is a non-partisan initiative and all parties are welcome to endorse it. You can sign the pledge at onecowichan.ca.