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Jobs, salmon and communities on Cowichan River at risk without new weir

If you stand beside the Cowichan River today and watch the water surge through the rainforest, it’s hard to imagine that last summer was so parched that tens of thousands of juvenile salmon died–or that only emergency pumping from Lake Cowichan kept the river from drying up earlier this fall.

“We ran out of water this year,” said local resident and biologist Tom Rutherford, director of strategic priorities for the Cowichan Watershed Board. “The river was on life support.”

"Every year now we don’t have enough water. We have to make gut wrenching decisions about how do we use our water. It’s lose-lose.” 

Last summer’s drought was the worst ever on record. But the issues in the Cowichan are not new: the fact is for 15 of the past 20 years, there hasn’t been enough water in the famous Cowichan River to meet the needs of the legendary salmon runs, industry and jobs, watershed residents, and the ecosystem that keeps us all alive.

Community planning public meetings are part of a process that will explore future water use needs alongside various potential water supply and storage options. Credit: Cowichan River Water Supply

The watershed is a casualty of climate change. Climate change is global, and there’s no overnight fix. There IS, however a local fix for the Cowichan River, says Rutherford: rebuild and raise the aged weir on Lake Cowichan, to store extra water over the rainy season to be able to provide enough water in the river for the dry months. 

Local partners—especially the Cowichan watershed board, Cowichan Tribes, and the Cowichan Valley Regional District—have been working hard for decades to make the new weir a reality. This includes completing a detailed Water Use Plan in 2018, which, says Rutherford “was the first [Water Use Plan] in B.C. led by the local community … with an eye to ecological and economic sustainability. There’s a lot of science, with everybody around the table, and a lot of traditional knowledge.”

This was followed by a “shovel ready” engineering design for a new structure that would replace the out-of-date weir, which was built in 1957 and is still owned by the pulp mill in Crofton.

So far, the new weir has been held up by a lack of money and, just as challenging, said Rutherford, “We need someone to hold the licence and own the structure." 

The current weir on Lake Cowichan. Credit: Cowichan River Water Supply

The local partners are struggling with identifying a license holder due to concerns about associated liability, and many local experts feel that the province should play a greater role in this process, said Rutherford. 

"One of the reasons that’s scary is because it would set a precedent,” said Rutherford. If the Province holds the weir licence in the Cowichan, there will be pressure on B.C. to do the same for other watersheds that also need water storage.

The problem is urgent, said Rutherford.

"Every year now we don’t have enough water. We have to make gut wrenching decisions about how do we use our water. It’s lose-lose.”

Scientists have warned for decades that climate change would cause events like droughts. The Cowichan has been "balancing on that knife edge for a long time," said Rutherford. “But I don’t think anybody thought this day would be here so soon, and to such a degree.”

As a biologist, said Rutherford, he used to believe that if people “just stopped screwing up” nature would fix itself. But the damage to watersheds is now so severe, he said, “we’re looking at mitigation.”

"It will be precedent setting, but this is what climate change adaptation is going to look like. We can do it, but what missing right now is level of engagement from the province.”

"It's such an easy win. It's such a way for everybody to look good. It's a template. If we can do this here we can do it elsewhere."

Added Rutherford, “I feel our community is united on this now - we need to push this project over the top - weir ready!”

For decades now, the Cowichan Watershed Board and local experts have identified the obvious need for the new weir. Local partners have worked hard to get organized and ready. The B.C. government now needs to do its part in getting this heritage river off life support by stepping up with resources and action to get the new weir done.


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