Work underway as drought raises concern for fish in Cowichan River

Tuesday will mark 41 days since Vancouver Island has seen any measurable amount of rain, and that is drying up rivers in the Cowichan Valley.

Work is underway to rebuild the banks of the Cowichan River after heavy winter rainfalls eroded them away. With the banks eroded, homes are vulnerable to flooding when waterflows are high.

Dredging work will also be done to remove sedimentation from the river's floor. That work is to help save the upcoming salmon run.

"We’re losing pool habitat, quite simply. It’s a place for adult salmon to hold as they’re getting ready to go up the system," said Tim Kulchyski, a biologist with Cowichan Tribes.

Due to climate change, the potential for winter snowpack is being lost, which is important for fish and serves as the buffer that the river needs to make it through a drought season.

"It‘s nice to have that holdback," said Kulchyski "For fall fish, they’ll come in and they’ll spawn. Their eggs lie in the system for as long as a couple on months. They hatch, then they actually live in the river. They need to get to a basic size."

Max Scruton is an engineer with Kerr Wood Leidal and Associates. He has been working with the Cowichan Tribes for four years.

"This riverbank actually used to be way out over there, and it’s been progressively eroding it’s way in," said Scruton.

The repair and dredging work is all part of a $24 million project that will also include upgrades to the Cowichan River weir, which was originally built in 1955.

"The idea is to raise the weir, bring it up to date and allow greater storage and control so that more frequent droughts are less of an issue," said Kulchyski.

The river's source, Cowichan Lake, is also facing drought conditions. That has forced the weir's private operator, Catalyst Paper, to reduce flows and starve the river even further.

Intense droughts are a reality that Cowichan Tribes leaders hope can be avoided after their project to save the river is complete.