WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
By Parker Jefferson, One Cowichan
Without water there would be no life on earth. We are mostly water and next to air it is the most critical substance we need to sustain life. I guess you could say that protecting our water resources is pretty important. This is why One Cowichan and other local stewardship groups are working towards getting local control of our water resources. Today, our lake and river are controlled by bureaucrats who do not live in our community and are not accountable to local authorities. We think this governance model does not deliver the best possible management of our water resources and so we want to change it. We are not alone in this quest.
I was fortunate to be selected to attend a conference and workshop facilitated by the newly created Canadian Watershed Alliance held at the spectacular Brew Creek Centre near Whistler. This was the first conference of this type and it brought together fifteen people representing a variety of water conservation and stewardship groups from all over the province. There were representatives from stewardship groups in the Okanagan, Kootenays, Cariboo, Sunshine Coast, Fort Nelson, the Fraser Valley and the Island. Organizations like the First Nations Fisheries Council, Canadian Parks and Wildlife Service, BC Wildlife Federation, Watershed Watch Salmon Society and the Steelhead Society of BC were present. Over the three days of the conference we learned about telling our stories, engaging with supporters, organizing our databases and communicating via the internet and other media.
We all found this experience to be very inspiring and enlightening. I was very pleased to see that I was the about the oldest person in attendance, with almost all of the participants and presenters at least one generation younger than me. I was very impressed with their awareness of current issues and their focus on preserving and protecting our water resources. There was tremendous energy and enthusiasm among the participants and the conversations we had during breaks were very stimulating. We exchanged stories about our successes and our failures and we learned from each other in the process. We have forged alliances and friendships that will endure as we all seek our goals. At the end of the weekend we all agreed that we can change the world, one watershed at a time.
One thing that became apparent during the conference is that the Cowichan stewardship community is one of the best coordinated and most successful in the province. The Stewardship Roundtable concept with participation from all areas of government and the community was of great interest to other participants. The One Cowichan idea of activism on local issues may be adopted in other watersheds. We are lucky to have so many dedicated and experienced individuals working together here to protect and preserve our lake and river.
I was admonished by the youngsters at the conference for not using Twitter for messaging and engagement with local supporters, media and decision makers. To remedy that situation we have created a Twitter account, for those that may be interested it is @onecowichan. You will be hearing more from One Cowichan in the coming weeks.
We have had another low water situation in the river over the past few weeks. This one has been caused by the lack of rainfall this winter coupled with the cold temperatures. Environment Canada says that precipitation in the region was down about 20% for the month of January and that has led to flows in the last week of January that are not typically seen until June. Unlike our fall low flow crisis, there is no man-made cause for this, apart from the broader climate changes being experienced around the world.
There are a couple of concerns about low flows at this time of year. Our salmon have evolved to spawn in the fall when the river flows increase with the October and November rains. The river usually maintains the same or even higher flows throughout the winter and the eggs hatch when the days lengthen and the water warms up in February. This year the flows and river level dropped so much that many of the spawning beds have gone dry and most of the eggs there will have died due to exposure to air. If the river does not get back to a normal level in the next few weeks, any surviving eggs in these areas will not be able to hatch.
Another concern is the lack of habitat for the coho and steelhead fry that spend two years in the river. As was the case in the fall, this shrinking shallow water habitat puts them in danger from predation and decreases their access to food. I am also concerned about the returning steelhead that enter the river from December to April. A colleague who lives on Cowichan Bay told the January Stewardship Roundtable meeting that he has never seen so many seals in the estuary area at this time of year. They are probably there to feed on steelhead that may be staging in the bay for longer than normal, waiting for the river to rise. This would be similar to the situation experienced in October where the Chinook salmon were devastated by predation because the river was too low for them to enter. I have heard reports of steelhead being seen with seal bites. The steelhead run is small relative to our salmon runs but they are a tremendous game fish and draw many anglers to the river to pursue them, myself included.
The rains in the first week of February have started to raise the river and the trend looks good. Only about 1% of salmon survive from egg to adult, so these little fish need all the help they can get. The more rain we get now, the more salmon we will have in the future.