UPDATE: People in Cowichan Valley asked to reduce water use as drought level rises

Cowichan Lake storage levels getting dangerously low

Extremely warm and dry conditions have prompted the province to announce a Level 3 drought rating for much of coastal British Columbia, including the Cowichan Valley, and are asking people to reduce their water use.

The areas affected stretch along the coast from the Alaska border to the Lower Mainland and include the Skeena Nass and Stikine basins in the northwest.

Haida Gwaii, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are also included in the Level 3 drought rating.

Level 3 drought conditions call for voluntary water-use reductions from all surface-water and groundwater users, including municipal, agricultural and industrial users.

Graham Kissack, vice-president of environmental health and safety for Catalyst Paper, said at a meeting of the Cowichan Watershed Board on July 30 that, typically, the Crofton pulp and paper mill maintains storage in Cowichan Lake until the end of July and then starts to let the water go gradually, according to an approved rate, to feed the river through the dry season.

But he said the lake is currently at less than 45 per cent storage capacity.

“That leaves us with a water deficit of about 60 days, which leaves us 60 days short,” Kissack said.

“Compared to 2016, which was the worst year on record, we are tracking to go even below those levels. We have also lost an incredible amount of snowpack in May, which has taken us all by surprise, and we have a very hot and dry forecast to deal with.”

The Cowichan Water Board’s Tom Rutherford said it’s obvious there just isn’t enough water.

“We are parsing it out as best we can, but we need the infrastructure to manage our water or we will be in a really bad spot every year from now on.”

Tammy Isaachsen, a community liaison with the Municipality of North Cowichan, said that currently, Chemainus is under stage two watering restrictions while the rest of the municipality is under stage one watering restrictions.

“However, that may change as a result of the province announcing a Level 3 drought rating,” she said.

The province has identified a number of important fish-bearing streams on Vancouver Island that are approaching critical environmental flow thresholds for ecosystems and fish.

These include, but are not limited to, the Koksilah, Chemainus, San Juan and Salmon Rivers.

Maximum water conservation is encouraged in these and other low-flow watersheds.

Staff from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development will continue to monitor river levels and angling closures may go into effect if the warm temperatures continue to negatively impact stream flows and water supplies.

If voluntary reductions of water use are not sufficient to maintain flows above critical levels, the ministry may consider regulating water usage under the Water Sustainability Act.

Specific actions could include the temporary suspension of water licences or short-term water approvals to restore flows to minimum critical levels in the affected streams.

Water users on all streams are reminded to ensure that water intakes are screened to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans standards to prevent fish from being pulled into water systems as water levels drop.

Low water levels can impede the passage of salmon, increase susceptibility to disease, or cause stranding or death due to low oxygen and high water temperatures.

Local municipal water conservation bylaws may differ from provincial water conservation targets, due to local water supply and demand, and the availability of storage (lakes and reservoirs) or groundwater.

Residential, agricultural and industrial water users who are located within municipalities and regional districts are encouraged to observe local water conservation bylaws where they exist.

Water conservation is everyone’s responsibility.

Some water conservation tips at home include limiting outdoor watering, taking shorter showers and installing water-efficient shower heads, taps and toilets.

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