Looking Back on 2014

It’s time to take a look back at 2014, a year that saw progress towards sustainability, increased awareness of climate change, a tragic loss to our stewardship community and hope for positive change in the governance of our watershed.

As the year started our river and lake were very low and we were experiencing a winter drought with very little precipitation since mid November 2013.   This unusual situation was the northern end of the drought affecting the whole west coast of North America.  We soon became aware of the severe drought in California and the effects that it was having on food production there.

The situation was brought into clear focus in January by Uvic Climatologist Dr. Richard Hebda, when he presented at one of the Watershed Board Speaker Series talks at VIU.  It looks like our summers will be dry and warm like the south Okanagan and our winters more like Portland, milder and wetter with lower snow packs in our mountains.  Water and food security for our community will be increasing concerns as we prepare to deal with the increasing effects of climate change.  

Watersheds 2014, an international conference on water and governance, was held at the Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre early in February.   We were all moved by some very engaging presentations from First Nations contributors about sustainability and connections to nature. Over 4 days we learned more about the specific climatic changes we can expect in our region and their effects on our watershed.  We started thinking about how we might gain some local control of activities in our watershed with 1st Nations co-governance.  We are thinking this might be the best way to plan for the future and enhance water and food sustainability in our watershed.

The frustrations of having no local control had been highlighted by provincial  bureaucratic mismanagement of our water supply in 2012 and by the lack of our ability to stop the dumping of toxic waste in the Shawnigan watershed.  Many of our community leaders had been petitioning the provincial government to allow some local decision making ability in the new Water Sustainability Act (WSA) that was being written in Victoria.

When the WSA was released in March, we were very pleased to note that there was indeed a provision for some form of local watershed management in it and we have now started the process of determining exactly how that should look.  We are very optimistic about getting some legislated authority to make decisions locally about activities in our watershed.   This will be a great help as we make plans for our future that extend far beyond the next election cycles.

In the spring, under the leadership of President Gerald Thom, the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society (CLRSS) completed the Shoreline Habitat Assessment of Cowichan Lake.  The CLRSS then set goals to protect 50% of our undisturbed shoreline and restore 10% of the modified shoreline areas by 2020.  We then developed the Shoreline Stewardship Program to restore riparian habitat and obtained significant funding from over 80 donors to start restoring riparian areas around the lake.  During the summer, 5 local students were hired to work with volunteers and together we restored 7 lakefront properties by removing invasive species and replacing them with over 2,000 native riparian plants.  This program is ongoing and expanding, with funding in place for at least 2 more years.

It was after one of the large planting and restoration efforts in July that Gerald Thom was tragically killed when his small aircraft crashed near Nanaimo.  The CLRSS was left with a huge hole to fill in our leadership.  His energy, enthusiasm and the countless hours of volunteer work he did are sorely missed.  In keeping with his spirit we have pulled together and are all working harder to keep up the momentum he created and we will continue in his honour.

The predicted drought conditions returned for us again in the summer months, with little snowpack and almost no rain the lake again reached extremely low levels and our river flow had to be reduced to a bare minimum.  The low river flow and high water temperatures placed a lot of stress on our resident fish as they struggled to find areas where cool water was entering the river for refuge.   We got to within a week or so of having to shut down the Crofton pulp mill for lack of water when the skies finally opened and the life saving rains came in October.

This second critical drought in the past 3 years drove home the point that we must store more water in our lake in the summer in order to ensure the survival of our fish and the health of our watershed and our community.  The CVRD Board agreed and in September they passed the Watershed Board recommendation that we increase our summer water storage.  Work is now being done to determine how best to accomplish the increased water storage that will improve water and food security for our community.

One Cowichan surveyed 700 local residents last summer about their concerns and priorities for our community.  Water and food security rated high on the list and the municipal elections of November have elected a majority of councilors who are very aware of the importance of these issues.

These were just some of the events that took place in our community this year that I was involved with.  There are many other people and groups working on to improve the health and sustainability of our community every day.  We are very lucky to live here, things like this are not happening to this extent anywhere else in Canada.

Our salmon returns this year were again very good indicating that all the work we are doing to restore our watershed is paying off.  With the opportunity for us to gain some measure of local decision making ability in our watershed and the well informed and enthusiastic new municipal governments we have for the next 4 years I am looking forward to much more progress ahead for our community in 2015.