Catalyst Needs To Step Up

When I retired in 2006 and moved to the Cowichan Valley I was looking forward to many years of relaxation and lots of fishing.  I have certainly had the opportunity to do a lot of fishing but sitting back with my feet up has not been part of my routine. 

I wanted to help with conservation here and do what I could to help protect and preserve this watershed.  Over the years I have become involved with several organizations in our community that are working hard to plan for the future.  I would say that I am busier in retirement than I was in the working world and I am enjoying every minute.

One reason that I like attending all these meetings and getting out to do things that improve the health of our watershed is that we are making progress.  Another reason is that here are dozens of others who are just as dedicated and working harder than me and we have all become friends along the way.

There is a tremendous spirit in our community and many of us realize what a great place this is to live, work and play.  There are regular meetings between all levels of government, industry and conservation groups where we share information and make plans to deal with the challenges we face.  The current drought crisis is a good example of how we are working together.

The drought we are facing this year is unprecedented.  Most of the people in our community understand this and are doing what they can to conserve water.  At a recent Flows Working Group meeting we discussed all the things that are being done to monitor river flows and water quality.  We looked at what is being done to protect our fish and analyzed flow projections into the fall.

The river flow is currently running at 5.5 cubic meters per second (CMS), with water temperatures reaching 22 degrees C, only a few degrees below the lethal temperatures for salmon. 

We have concerns about the nearly extinct summer run Chinook salmon and have installed a fish counter in the river near Stoltz Pool to see how many are in the river.  The counter went in June 17th, which is after the peak migration time and we have determined at least 40 of the large salmon have passed the counter.  These salmon have not been seen with video and sonar detectors installed at the weir.  This means they are in the river, likely holding in deep pools where they can get away from the hot water that would kill them.  Swim counts will be done to try to find where these fish are holding.

Salmon fry salvage efforts are ongoing and tens of thousands of baby salmon have been rescued from drying pools to date.

The flow and lake levels graph shows that our lake level on July 10 is much lower than it was last year at this time and equal to 1998, which was the worst drought recorded.  The trend is dropping and by the time you read this we will be setting new records for low water.  The “Rule Curve” that arbitrarily sets summer lake levels says we should be at this level in the last week of September.

Current lake level projections indicate that at our current flow rate of 5.5 CMS we will reach zero storage on about September 26.  At zero storage there is no longer any control of river flow and the river will slowly start to dry up.  This will lead to the closure of our largest employer, Catalyst.

Last summer Catalyst reduced the flow in the river to 4.5 CMS but it does not seem likely that this will be allowed this year.  The Catalyst mill must shut down if the flow below the pump house falls below 2.8 CMS.   Flow graphs showed that the flow did go below 2.8 occasionally last year depending on mill water demands, so the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will not authorize flows of 4.5 CMs this year.

Without significant rain, which is unlikely, Catalyst will be facing a very serious situation this September.  Many in our community will stand to lose their pay cheques if the mill is forced to close down which now appears likely this fall.

The initiative to reconstruct the weir has been led by the CVRD, Cowichan Tribes and local conservation groups.  The CVRD has applied for the funds to do the work but someone has to step up and apply for the water license to increase lake storage.

Area I Director Klaus Kuhn has been vocal with his concerns about the CVRD and local taxpayers being on the hook for this project.  It makes sense that the provincial and federal governments should be involved but to date they seem unwilling to do what it takes on our water crisis.

Many of us who are working so hard to protect our watershed agree that as our region’s largest employer, Catalyst is in the best position to convince the provincial and federal government to step in and help facilitate the weir reconstruction.  We hear a lot about public/private partnerships being supported by senior levels of governments.  This kind of arrangement could move things forward quickly and potentially save us a year or two of drought crisis management.

Someone needs to step up and apply for the water license to increase water storage in our lake.  Hopefully Catalyst will soon realize that a secure water supply for their operation is in their best interest, just as it for all of their employees and for our community. 

Climate change projections are indicating that our summer droughts and low snow packs will only worsen in coming years.  We have a solution and we need all hands on deck working hard to make it happen as soon as possible.