Editorial: Pumping forecast a wake-up call on Cowichan water

Drought shows the need to raise the weir and store more water in Cowichan Lake

Catalyst tests out the pumps at the Cowichan Lake weir. (Ed Bonenfant photo)

It looks like Cowichan is not going to dodge the bullet this year.

For those reading from outside that corner of Vancouver Island, Cowichan Lake (one of the Island’s biggest) feeds the Cowichan River, which flows from the Island’s spine past the village of Lake Cowichan and the city of Duncan and into the ocean at the charming little seaside community of Cowichan Bay.

A weir at head of the river controls the flow of water from lake to ocean. It has been operated for years the owners of the Catalyst pulp mill in Crofton, in conjunction with the provincial government.

For the past three years of drought, Catalyst has been poised to have to pump water over the weir at Cowichan Lake to keep the Cowichan River flowing, but the rain has always come just in time.

This year, however, pumping is looking well nigh inevitable. That’s because the estimate is that without significant rainfall, which is not in the forecast for the next three weeks, pumping will have to start around Aug. 17. Fall rains are unlikely to kick in this time to save us from this extreme consequence of the drought.

The years of summer drought we’ve been experiencing have hit the area in very visible ways. All along roadways you can see the trees that are now dead and brown, years of water scarcity finally having taken the ultimate toll on them. It’s not unusual now to see dry river and streambeds where once water flowed or to hear about fish fry being salvaged from these drying watercourses earlier and earlier each year. Without the weir, one has to wonder what the lake and river would look like at this point in the season.

It’s baffling that some still stubbornly refuse to do even minimal water conservation, like not powerwashing their driveways at the height of a drought. Perhaps when the pumps start up and the lake level starts to drop — which it could by as much as 20 inches, we are told — it will finally be the wake-up call such doubters need to come to the realization that water is a precious resource, and it’s not endless, even when you live on a lake or a river.

Some seem to think that the comparatively little bit of rain we’ve had this month means that we’re not in a drought. But while the weather has seemed a bit on the cool side, and we’ve had a few wet days, these have, in reality, been little more than showers. They helped out backyard gardeners, but did not make an appreciable difference to the diminishing level of the lake, and they certainly did nothing to help store any water for the coming weeks.

Whether you think climate change is real or not (it is) and whether you think it’s human caused or not (it is), doesn’t change the fact that we’ve hit a tipping point here locally this year that many thought would never come — having to pump to keep the Cowichan River flowing.

It only makes sense to look at long term water storage solutions. This includes raising the weir at Cowichan Lake to store more winter water for when we need it in the summer.

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