Cowichan awaits crucial provincial answers on river flow question

Catalyst is challenging the provincial government stance that the firm must be the party to initiate changes in the river flow licensing arrangement. - Andrew Leong/file
Catalyst is challenging the provincial government stance that the firm must be the party to initiate changes in the river flow licensing arrangement.
— image credit: Andrew Leong/file

A provincial ruling on summer storage of Cowichan Lake water may not be made in time drown another fish-killing drought next fall.

Regional chairman Rob Hutchins said Thursday local leaders were still awaiting word by Dec. 15 concerning Catalyst Crofton mill manager Rob Belanger's recent letter to forests ministry brass about starting water-storage processes.

Belanger basically urges B.C.'s comptroller of water rights to exercise its power to control the river's flow tap, despite Catalyst's two river licences.

But Hutchins wasn't sure if Victoria would agree with Belanger — nor how the province will answer Living Rivers' recent proposal about operation of Cowichan Lake's weir — in time to meet an April deadline when the weir comes under Catalyst's control.

"We still may meet our deadline, but we don't know yet," Hutchins said.

Belanger's letter explains Catalyst would rather the province exercise its responsibility to helm river-storage flows, instead of the timber giant applying for new licences — a move suggested in fall meetings with ministry staff.

"We currently release water through the operation of the (Cowichan Lake) weir pursuant to directions from the comptroller of water rights in accordance with the terms of our water-storage licence," Belanger says, citing a paragraph that states "the licensee herein shall release water at such times, and in such quantities, as may be directed by the Comptroller of Water Rights, for the public benefit."

That means Victoria could change river water storage volumes to provide fall flows, if needed, to prevent another river drought that killed spawning salmon, and affected Aboriginal food-fish gathering, locals maintain.

"We are concerned the low-water situation in October this year could happen again next year," Belanger said.

His worries — sparked in part by the mill's need for water for pulp-and-paper making — are shared Cowichan Tribes elders, Cowichan watershed stewards, and other local leaders for a variety of reasons.

"It would appear the comptroller could modify his directions to release water under the current rule establishing a rule band to provide ramping down from full storage at a later date than under the current rule curve, i.e. revising the date of beginning rule curve ramp down from July 9 to July 31," writes Belanger.

"In this way, there should be greater flow in October and November than there would be if we released water through the weir in accordance with the existing rule curve. We would support such a modification."

Word was also pending about public and bureaucratic methods of how the government would change its weir-storage timelines and controls, noted Hutchins.

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