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Province sticks to river position

Oct 27 2012

The chinook salmon have spawned and the river is rising as rain continues to fall, but controversy over how to manage water levels in the Cowichan River continues to boil.

A meeting Thursday evening in Duncan organized by the grassroots OneCowichan group drew more than 200 people, including representatives of the Cowichan Tribes, Catalyst Paper, Cowichan Valley Regional District, Cowichan Watershed Board and the province.

But the meeting ended in frustration, with the provincial representative refusing to budge from the Forests Ministry's contention that the CVRD should apply for a water licence if the community decides more water needs to be stored behind the weir, organizers said.

The CVRD has said that amounts to downloading of provincial responsibilities.

A Forests Ministry spokesman said previously the province is not willing to impose a solution without a clear consensus from the community.

It's feared some waterfront-property owners would object to higher summer lake levels.

Former federal fisheries and environment minister David Anderson, a member of the Watershed Advisory Board, said the province is ignoring legislation that says it is responsible for protection of water and fish habitat.

"I was deeply disappointed by the government response," he said.

"I think a good number of people are really puzzled by the provincial government position. ... It is inexplicable that they just do not want to do what various government statutes tell them they ought to do."

After an extended period without rain this summer, river levels dropped and salmon were unable to swim up the river. It's a situation that's likely to be repeated because of climate change, Anderson said.

"It means droughts in the summer and flash floods in the winter," he said.

Matt Price of OneCowichan said it was good to see so many community sectors coming together, but the provincial "non-answers" were less than satisfying.

Rodger Hunter, co-ordinator of the Cowichan Watershed Board, said the province does not seem to be thinking through its role in protecting fish habitat and water quality during climate change.

"Maybe we should be a pilot project," he said. "We're not the only watershed on the Island that's going to face this. It's going to get worse and worse, so maybe it's a place to break new ground."

Although some chinook salmon could not get up the Cowichan in time to spawn and ended up spawning in the lower reaches, the escapement was about 3,000, said Andrew Thomson, southcoast area director for Fisheries and Oceans.

That includes 1,500 mature fish that made it through the counting fence, while 800 were trapped and trucked up the river and 660 were taken for brood stock at the hatchery.

"It's a little less than we hoped for," Thomson said. "You never know until four years down the road when you see the returns come back, but it does seem the rains came in time and we're not looking at one of those years with a 1,000 escapement."

With so many people interested in improving the watershed, it should be possible to find a solution to the water-flow problem, Thomson said.

"There is obviously some work to be done collectively to improve flows over the long term."

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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