This photo, from August 2018, shows just how dry creekbeds can get at Cowichan Lake during a hot summer. These men are trudging from one pool to the next to rescue stranded fish. Will they have to start early this year? (Citizen file)

Drought fears high, Cowichan Lake already at August lows

Officials asking for early storage measures with lake just 40 per cent full

As if the wind, the snow and the cold haven’t been enough this winter, Mother Nature may be cooking up some more adversity for Vancouver Islanders: drought.

While summer remains many weeks away, one of the Island’s biggest lakes is only about 40 per cent full, a low level not usually seen until August.

In a report made public March 4, the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable called the situation at Cowichan Lake “disturbing.”

“The Cowichan River is running at 20 CMS (cubic metres per second), well below expectations for this time of year and the Heather Mountain snow pillow is showing a low snow pack,” the report reads. “There is little precipitation in the long-term forecast and we are going to need a very wet spring to avoid very low flows this summer and fall. The graphs look bad but there is still time to accumulate snow in the mountains.

“The stalled high pressure system we have been under for the past several weeks is typical of what we can expect going forward and is a manifestation of climate change. A rapidly warming arctic has slowed the jet stream which results in stubbornly persistent weather patterns.

“We are sitting under a high pressure system more typically seen here in the summer. Winter droughts can have very serious consequences later in the summer. This is setting up to be one of the worst summers yet in the Cowichan.

In order to offset expected summer difficulties, officials are asking the province for permission to start storing water behind the lake’s weir before the mandated date of April 1, possibly as early as March 11, the report continued.

During the past few summers, there has been desperate concern about the level of water in the Cowichan River during the last hot few weeks of summer.

“It’s concerning, certainly,” Cowichan Valley Regional District chairman Ian Morrison said. “But, we have had similar circumstances in the past where the rain and the snow actually did come in late March and April.

“For the most part, the wet season’s been drier than normal. I guess where I’m concerned is the numbers from the snow pillow on Heather Mountain are causing concern because precipitation in the form on snow on the hills is water in the bank.

“I go for a walk early every morning and it’s a really peculiar thing that it’s -6 or -8 and there are still six or eight or 10 inches of snow on the ground but the roads are bone dry. It’s supposed to be the rainy season right now and it’s not particularly rainy.

This isn’t a new phenomenon to not have the snow pack combined with low lake levels, Morrison said. And it’s not yet irreparable.

“It could fill up in a matter of days if we got one of those Pineapple Express systems to come up and stall over the Island,” he said. “But then that will have the detrimental effect: we’re going to lose that water in the bank up on the mountains.”

Graham Kissack agreed.

“We have a lot of people who live around the lake who have noticed that the level is getting low. It’s been the coldest February on record, and although there was snow on the ground it was actually quite dry from a precipitation perspective.

Kissack is a vice-president with Catalyst Paper, which draws water for its pulp and paper mill in Crofton from the lake and operates the weir, which controls the flow out of the lake. He said Catalyst is trying to be proactive with their request to the province to start early storage. He said the firm is not looking to reduce river flow at this point, so there would be no impact on fish.

“We still have to hold the river at 25 CMS and we would be doing that. But, any additional water above that level, we would like to hold back and help the lake recover in terms of its level,” Kissack assured.

“I think the other thing to recognize is that we’re still early in the season. Forecasters are looking at a wet week [in mid March] that will help charge the lake. Also, we can build snow pack in the mountains until the end of April. We still really do have six or seven weeks left to see the lake level rebound,” he said.

“It’s been a highly unusual winter but it’s still early in the season. We don’t need to light our hair on fire yet.”

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