The Dean River is in a very remote location the central coast, just north of Bella Coola. It is a world famous fishing destination that draws anglers from all over the world every summer.
There are no roads to the Dean, you have to fly in in a helicopter or take a 6-hour boat ride from Bella Coola. It takes a lot of time and money to get there, but when you arrive you can count on beautiful scenery and some of the best steelhead fly fishing in the world.
The beautiful scenery is still there, but the steelhead and salmon, not so much.
I am very fortunate to have a good friend who owns property there, and we have been going to the Dean every summer for the past 15 years. Over that time we have witnessed the rapid decline in fish stocks and the changes in the river that have caused it.
The headwaters of the Dean are in Tweedsmuir Park and that is where the Mountain Pine Beetle was first observed to be growing uncontrollably in the late ‘80s. You could say this area was ground zero for the infestation that affected so many of our forests.
The tributaries of the Dean were effectively cleared of all living trees over about a decade. By the late ‘90s fires raged in these valleys reducing the former forests to charred wastelands. When forests are removed, erosion soon follows and when there were large rain events in the early 2000’s we would see the river rise and fill with silt like never before.
The famous named fishing runs that had been stable for decades and held so many great memories for hundreds of anglers started to fill in with gravel. Winter storms brought down massive amounts of gravel that filled the lower river in only a few years.
The river became shallower and wider as it jumped its banks and started eroding new channels through the forest. All of these incredible disturbances have wreaked havoc with the fish populations by destroying habitat and spawning beds. Creel surveys for the past few years have indicated that there could be as much as a 60% to 70% reduction of steelhead numbers. Catching one this year was truly cause for celebration.
The Bella Coola River has been similarly affected and salmon numbers there were very low this year. These low numbers occurred in a year with an abundance of salmon in nearly every other system on the coast. It is not know if or when these rivers will recover to their former stability and glory.
These great rivers are among the first to demonstrate the effects of climate change. The Pine Beetles thrived because the cold November weather that used to control their populations has not occurred in recent years. The beetle infestation was one of the first direct results of climate change.
Climate change is presenting similar challenges here in the Cowichan. Climate change did not cause the destruction of our headwaters forests, we did that ourselves, but the gravel that has been washed into our river by subsequent erosion is a big concern for the viability of our fish stocks.
Climate change has reduced our summer rainfall as we have witnessed over the past few years and the river flow has been reduced to an absolute minimum to ensure we have any water left in October if we get no significant rainfall in the next few weeks. A Flows Working Group, chaired by Lake Cowichan Mayor Ross Forrest, meets regularly to discuss measures we must take to deal with the low water situation we are facing again this year. The Working Group includes representatives from all levels of government, Cowichan Tribes, Catalyst and local conservation groups.
Nobody lives on the Dean in the winter, so the huge floods that can occur there are of little concern. Duncan, however, is vulnerable to flooding that can occur in pineapple express events we can experience any time in the winter.
We are fortunate here, we have a solution that can significantly help us fight and mitigate the effects of our new and still changing climate. We can control water storage and river flow with the weir. The current weir is old and very clunky to operate. We need a new and better one in order to better manage our precious water resources for flood and drought mitigation. The Flows Working Group is unanimous in support for the construction of a new and better weir.
Most of our community leaders understand this and studies will soon be undertaken to assess the engineering and financial requirements for this new weir.
I have not been here very long but long enough to understand there is still some opposition to the concept of storing more water in the summer. This is likely to become an election issue this fall in the Municipal elections. One Cowichan is currently running a survey of our community to see what is important to us. You can take the survey at www.onecowichan.ca.
It is important to understand the facts. Lakeshore property owners will have smaller beach areas if we increase water storage in the summer, but the water will still be well below where it naturally gets to in the winter. This summer I would be surprised to hear anyone complaining of not having enough beach area in front of their house.
We must hear all sides of the debate, leave all options on the table and decide as a community how best to proceed to ensure we have a viable river and lake in the coming decades. Ecosystems are fragile and can change very quickly. We owe it to our children to ensure we do all we can to protect ours.