River Pumping A Short Term Fix

Our family is very lucky to be living on the Cowichan River and we often find ourselves sitting in the river on hot afternoons.  There are hundreds of coho fry living in the river in our back yard as well.  I am often reminded of their presence as they gently bump into my legs when I sit quietly on a rock in the river.  A coho bump feels like someone gently touching your leg with the tip of their finger.   They must think I would taste good or something.

I am always happy to see and feel them in the river where they will spend the first years of their life.  They appear to be healthy and have been steadily growing in size over the summer months. 

There has been a long and concerted effort this spring and summer to monitor and rescue stranded salmon fry in our watershed.  Veteran guide Joe Saysell has been taking care of the upper Cowichan River from the weir to Skutz falls.  He knows all the side channels where the tiny salmon hatch and seek refuge in the early spring.  As the river flow is reduced every year to conserve water for the summer these side channels slowly dry up and Joe is there to move any stranded fish into the main river.

The upper watershed has also received a lot of attention this year.  The Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society has led an ambitious program of fry monitoring and rescue that started in March and is just starting to wind up now.

When this program started it was directed at monitoring emerging salmon fry as they hatched in the gravel of the tributaries of Cowichan Lake.  Volunteers from the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society provided many of the volunteer hours.

We started rescuing fry from the quickly drying tributaries in May and by the end of August we had moved over 100,000 fry from drying pools into the lake.  Based on the average 1% survival rate, this should result in about 1,000 returning adults, mostly coho.  Shaw creek is now the only tributary with any over the ground flow into the lake, all other tributaries are dry with just a few pools of water among huge piles of gravel.

The lake level on August 24 was about where it was last October10, just before the life-saving rains came last year.  We are heading into uncharted territory this year with respect to lake and river levels and extraordinary measures are being planned to provide water to the river if no significant rains come this September.

Catalyst is understandably very concerned about the effects on their mill should the lake reach zero storage, which is currently projected to be around the last week of September.  They are planning a partial shut down for maintenance in the first two weeks of October, but a full shut down would be required if we reach zero storage and the river slowly starts to dry up.

In order for our region’s largest employer to keep operating at full capacity, the river must have at least 4.5 cubic meters per second of flow at the weir. 

Catalyst is now developing emergency plans to supplement the river flow by temporarily installing large water pumps in the lake that will be capable of providing up to 5 CMS of water for the river.  This project will be entirely funded by Catalyst.

The Cowichan Watershed Board Flows and Fish working group has discussed these plans and there is general agreement that it will be beneficial for the survival of all fish in the river.  Federal and Provincial authorities, Cowichan Tribes, CVRD and conservation groups all understand that the alternative of a drying river is just not acceptable at a time when our main run of chinook salmon will struggling to enter the river to spawn.  There are now over 200 large salmon in the river seeking refuge in deep pools.

There will be some impacts to lakeshore residents as the lake could be drawn down a foot or more below the bottom of the weir. This will impact shoreline riparian areas and habitat.  The large diesel generators required to power the pumps may have an impact on those living nearby.

Of course this all depends on what happens with the weather.  More rain will mean less pumping and we can hope we get a reversal in the dry weather we have seen all summer.

It is very unfortunate that it has come to this.  The desperate measures being considered to keep our river and mill running could have been so easily avoided if we had been able to increase our summer water storage years ago.  

There is a 90% probability that we will see the same weather patterns again this winter and next spring with below normal rainfall and little snow pack.

The reconstruction of the weir is obviously critical for our community.  The lack of leadership and support from the provincial government has made this project very complicated but all partners, led by the CVRD, Catalyst and Cowichan Tribes are working hard to get it done as soon as possible.  There is the possibility of some temporary measures being taken next summer to increase storage until the full weir reconstruction can be completed.

With continued perseverance and local support we will be able to keep our river alive and healthy.  I hope to continue to be bumped by coho for many years to come.