British Columbia

Drought-ravaged Koksilah River on Vancouver Island to get monitoring wells

The Koksilah River system, which flows into the City of Duncan, has experienced critical drought in recent years putting water levels and fish populations at risk.

Water restrictions were implemented in August 2019 after water levels dipped to extremely low levels

In August 2019, the Koksilah River's flow dropped below 180 litres per second, and water use was restricted. (B.C. Government)

The province is setting up observation wells to monitor groundwater levels in the Koksilah watershed on Vancouver Island.

The Koksilah river system, nestled in the Cowichan Valley, has been subject to drought-like conditions for the past decade, says Tim Kulchyski, a fisheries biologist and resource consultant with the Cowichan Tribes First Nation.

He says since the river system is smaller than the Cowichan system — which was also subject to drought — it often gets missed.

But, he says, the Koksilah is an extremely important ecological system.

"[Though] it's a small system, it's a salmon-bearing system that has Chinook, Chum, and Coho. [It has] a lot of trout, a lot of other species," he said. 

Tim Kulchyski, biologist for the Cowichan Tribes First Nation, says the Koksilah River has both important ecological and cultural significance. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Kulchyski says it also has important cultural significance.

"To us, the river is a family member. It's not only a family member, it's something that distinctly sustains us, not just with salmon, not just with drinking water, but with all of these other issues with all of these other cultural connotations," he said. 

"That was our highway to visit the entire watershed and there's this huge history there that isn't generally known."

Severe drought last summer

It is also disproportionately affected by drought.

"Because the Koksilah is so small and it's very groundwater-dependent — it doesn't have lakes to moderate the system —the Koksilah suffers greatly during extended droughts," Kulchyski said. 

In August 2019, water flow in the river dropped so significantly, the province stepped in to restrict water use around the river. At the time, the Forests and Lands Ministry described water flow so low, habitat conditions were "severely degraded."

"Last summer was really a kicker and if you look at the annual rainfall, we're really entering into a new era in which the droughts are becoming much more extended," Kulchyski said. 

"It's simple math. If you don't have that huge volume of rain that we're used to coming at the time we are used to, it starts to impact ecosystems." 

He says the fact observational wells are being installed is a positive step in the unified effort it will take to protect this watershed.

"I would say the communities are leading the way and the government agencies are following," he said. "The bottom line is it is going to take everyone working together."

Listen to the interview with Tim Kulchyski here:

With files from All Points West