British Columbia

Low water levels in Cowichan River may put hatching salmon at risk, conservationists fear

A crisis for the river's salmon is now less than a month away, says Parker Jefferson, co-chair of the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable.

Crisis for river's salmon now less than a month away, says Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable co-chair

The Cowichan Valley snowpack is not large enough to provide the water that fish need to survive, conservationists fear. (Paul Vecsei/Engbretson Underwater Photography)

Low water levels in the Cowichan River are causing concern for salmon eggs due to hatch very soon.

The snowpack in the region is not large enough to provide the water that the fledgling fish need to survive, says Parker Jefferson, co-chair of the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable. 

A crisis for the river's salmon is now less than a month away, he says.

"Many of the areas the salmon spawned in are now high and dry, and obviously most of those eggs will be lost unless the river comes up," Jefferson told Gregor Craigie, host of CBC's On the Island.

A dried-up part of Cowichan Lake in 2012. (Parker Jefferson)

The weir on Cowichan Lake, which controls the outflow into the Cowichan River and is used to conserve water for the summer, should be under water during this time of year — but Jefferson says the weir's water storage level is only at 40 per cent.

"Not in my experience have we seen the lake this low at this time of year. This is unusual," he said.

The river is running at 20 cubic metres per second, according to Jefferson. When salmon spawned in fall 2018, the river was running at four times that speed. 

Significant rainfall in the area is not expected for the foreseeable future.

Jefferson says because Cowichan Valley has been so cold this winter, many of the eggs could freeze as well. 

New weir 

The Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable protects the area's watershed and works with Cowichan Valley residents, industry and government to address issues related to water. For instance, when low river flows threatened the chinook salmon population in fall 2006, members quickly acted to relocate spawning fish from the dry area to a high-flow area.

The Roundtable believes a new weir to replace the current structure, which is around 60 years old, would solve the salmon's problems. 

The weir would be built to modern engineering standards and modern seismic standards and would hold more water, says Jefferson, allowing for better regulation of the water flow. 

Jefferson says collaborators are in the process of applying for funds to do the engineering studies for a new weir.

The Cowichan River was very dry in fall 2012. (Parker Jefferson)

Licence concerns

Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau says building a new weir shouldn't be a problem, but there has been difficulty finding an organization that would apply for a conservation water licence to operate and maintain the weir, due to liability concerns. 

Both Furstenau and Jefferson say they hope the provincial government will take out the licence. 

"There's a responsibility to get over this hurdle as quickly as possible. Every year that we wait, this river is suffering greater and greater impacts because of the low water flows," said Furstenau. 

In a statement, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said it was aware and appreciates the concerns raised by the Cowichan Valley community. 

It does not currently have plans to take over the licence.

Listen to both interviews here:

With files from On the Island


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