DUNCAN, B.C. - The Cowichan River could run bone dry before the end of the month if rain doesn't start falling by the bucketful, raising concerns for environmentalists, municipal officials and representatives of the nearby paper mill.
The record-breaking drought could drastically impede spawning salmon runs, put the local pulp mill's operations in jeopardy and even affect the village of Crofton's water supply, says a local sport fisherman and longtime champion of the Cowichan river ecosystem on Vancouver Island.
How the situation got to this point appears to be a combination of unusually dry weather and a water management system that has stakeholders on all sides pointing fingers.
"It is truly sad that it takes a disaster to get people moving, (and) this is a disaster waiting to happen," said Paul Rickard, an avid sport fisherman and longtime champion of Cowichan River ecosystems.
Decades ago, a weir — a kind of dam — was built where the Cowichan River flows into Cowichan Lake to meet two goals: first, to maintain the flow of the river and second, to keep sufficient water in the lake as long as possible.
But as the Cowichan Watershed Board notes on its website, in the late summer and early fall, when the water levels drop, both those goals can't be met.
"Management of the weir becomes a challenging judgment call in which the lake level, discharge rate in the river, salmon priorities, and rainfall predictions are all factors which must be juggled," the board says.
A set of rules govern how much water would be released into the river from the lake. The idea is to use the lake as a giant reservoir to collect snow melt and rain for times when the river is running low.
Catalyst Paper has a license with the province to open and close the weir at certain times of the year in order to keep its Crofton pulp and paper mill operating downstream.
Rickard said things went wrong this year.
"Here we are in the driest fall on record and no water stored in the lake," he said. "Now we're facing potentially significant fish loss."
Rickard complained that local officials have bent to the will of cottagers on Cowichan Lake who don't like high water levels because it means they lose their beaches.
Brian Houle, Catalyst environment manager, said the company, too, is concerned about the rapidly drying river.
"We are heading towards — and each week we'll be closer to — a very difficult situation," he said.
Catalyst has been struggling financially in recent years and the last thing the company wants to do is be forced to suspend mill operations until there is more water available.
Brennan Clarke, spokesman for the forests ministry, said the government has presented a possible solution.
Catalyst holds a licence right now and could agree to change the conditions of that licence or, Clarke noted, the Cowichan Valley Regional District could take out another licence which would allow for higher water levels in the lake.
But Catalyst has said it has no plans to change its licence, and the district hasn't applied for another licence.
"It's been made abundantly clear to the Cowichan Valley Regional District that they could apply for this second licence [but] they haven't done it," Clarke said.
"They probably have their own reasons for that."
Rob Hutchins, chairman of the regional district, said the watershed board has recommended the district apply for the licence and that will be discussed.
But he noted: "There is a fairly lengthy process to apply for that. . . there are some costs involved and a significant amount of time as well."
Hutchins brushed aside accusations the regional district would tread lightly on taking out a water licence to avoid the wrath of lakefront property owners angry about the possibility of losing their beaches.
"This is not raising the weir," he said. "This is better managing the weir."
He suggested it's up to the province to do what it takes to look after the environment.
Forests Minister Steve Thomson said in a statement that the suggestion modifications have been made to the flow of water between the lake and the river are false.
"Whether additional water can be stored in the Cowichan Lake is not determined on a whim or gamble, but is governed by the conditions of the existing water licence" with Catalyst, the statement said.
In fact, he said in 2008 a public meeting confirmed local residents wanted the licence conditions honoured.
"The province does not believe it should unilaterally alter long-standing agreements on water usage, but is willing to help facilitate a community-derived solution, endorsed by local government with the proper water licences in place."
Brian Tutty, a retired biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans with 37 years of work on the Cowichan River, said it's time someone showed leadership on the issue.
"It's not how low can you go and what's safe to go lower," he said. "It's why do we have to when we have the biggest reservoir on the Island?"
Tutty said the solutions are there, but it all comes down to politics.
"If we can keep everybody moving towards an active, well-managed watershed with capacity to sustain droughts, everybody has a healthier watersheds," he said.
"But fighting over the issues and finding blame is not helpful."