The logic of a watershed, including development and forestry’s role in its demise, is playing out sadly in the Cowichan Valley.
A NEAR-SILENT CURRENT SLIPS THROUGH WILLOW RUN. The jade-green swirl of eddies and back-eddies causes darker reflections of trees to ripple in the August glare. Here and there, the slick surface boils over a hidden boulder, or abruptly sucks down with a wet slurp into some bottom declivity.
I’ve been coming to the Cowichan River for more than 60 years. It never fails to offer instruction in the mysterious, miraculous, astonishingly complex interconnectedness of the natural world.
Stephen Hume looks over fast water on the Cowichan River in 2004, just before a cycle of recurring summer droughts began to affect summer flows
For example, running counter to the visible river is a second, invisible stream. Comprised of air, it’s evident only by a rustling passage through dangling willow leaves. It flows uphill and upstream, graced occasionally by a gleam of dancing thistledown or a wisp of cottonwood fluff. Every river has an atmospheric doppelgänger ghosting in the opposite direction and pulsing cooler air from the ocean up the veins and capillaries of the watershed. Rivers are not just segments of perception, they are continuums; they connect the sky above the mountains where they rise to the deep sediments of the marine environment where they empty.
Down the centre line of the watercourse, shining through a narrow opening in the forest canopy, a band of brilliant blue sky lays down the image of a third river. It manifests as silken light. Sudden shafts illuminate the slow pools and faster water, highlighting the riffles with a palette of transparencies as the river of liquid slips beneath the river of light. That light brings life to the river, to the aquatic plants and insects that support all the higher forms. It’s the seasonal cosmic switch that turns the deciduous riparian cover on and off.
Beneath the mirrored light is yet another river, this one tangible, tactile, comprised of water-worn cobbles and smaller, smoother pebbles. It mumbles and grumbles its way imperceptibly seaward. It, too, has its back-eddies. Exposed flanks of gravel emerge from riverside shallows where they drag more slowly along the banks than does the submerged flow in the main current.
And there’s a fifth river here. It, too, is hidden. A river of groundwater flowing parallel to the main stream but slithering beneath it like some dark salamander easing through the seams of fractured bedrock below the gravel.
All rivers simultaneously inhabit these multiple identities. Most of us see only the one we want to see—the one that serves us best.
In the Cowichan’s case, many see only the main current. Once it provided a chute for log drives, now it delivers 120 million cubic metres of water to a pulp mill that provides 500 local jobs (and 5,500 elsewhere in BC). It dilutes urban sewage effluent. It irrigates farmers’ bountiful fields; offers pools to swimmers; provides a route for canoes, kayaks, the drift boats of angling guides, and the inner tubes of those content with a languid float. It’s also habitat for the fish that bring anglers from around the world.
If we cast dry flies, however, the river of air instructs us which insects are in hatch and which pattern to use. Or, if considering a well, we look to the groundwater that we can tap. Others look to the gravel that can be mined for construction aggregate.
These many-faced reaches of the upper Cowichan River provide prime spawning habitat for chinook and coho salmon and elusive steelhead. For brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout.
But water is dangerously low again this August, following the hottest July in recorded history. Half our summers in the last 20 years have yielded drought—a compelling signal of the “new normal” imposed by global warming. The exposed, sun-bleached flanks of gravel bars bake in the sun. The river narrows. Side channels dwindle to brackish puddles.
A tributary of the Cowichan—sensitive trout and salmon habit—gone dry
And so, another hot, dry season. Another bout of nail-biting angst in the Cowichan Valley for anglers, conservationists, householders, recreational users, mill workers and civic governments, as British Columbia’s blue-ribbon heritage river once again threatens to run dry.
River flows are regulated by a one-metre-high weir at the outlet from Cowichan Lake into the river. The weir, built in 1957, is designed to hold back the water which floods into the lake all winter. This permits summer releases to maintain a flow during dry months, sufficient to sustain fish populations, provide water to the Catalyst pulp mill at Crofton, and dilute sewage discharges at Duncan. Any recreational use comes after these priorities.
The 62-year-old weir, designed before global warming reduced flows
The optimum flow is 25 cubic metres per second. The minimum flow for sustaining fish populations is seven cubic metres per second. That’s the nominal target. But with a prolonged dry spring and early summer, flows fell below that as early as June. By late July, they hovered around five cubic metres per second, and occasionally dipped to 4.5. If the flow dwindles to 4.3 cubic metres per second, the mill shuts down, affecting not just jobs but $20 million in annual tax revenue and the $1 billion a year it contributes to the provincial economy.
There’s a scheme for pumping water over the weir to provide the minimum flow. Counter-arguments arise: it’s a false economy that simply delays the inevitable, trading one deficit against another, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Lowering the lake will exacerbate problems for fish stocks—a unique, endangered lamprey, for example, might be seriously threatened, triggering federal species-at-risk protections.
Fishing guides, their double-ended skiffs beached, have already spent days desperately rescuing salmon and trout fry stranded in drying puddles where side-channels of the Cowichan River once ran. They scooped them up in buckets and carried them to the diminishing main stem of the river. Not surprising, since freshwater angling contributes $100 million a year to the Island’s economy.
Tributaries supplying Cowichan Lake were dry by early August. Meade Creek looked like a logging road rather than a critical salmon- and trout-rearing nursery. Side channels had weeds carpeting the bottom. Wardroper Creek was the same. None seemed worthy of the forlorn habitat signs designating them “sensitive trout and salmon habitat” and enjoining the public—perhaps “begging” is the better word—to “please protect our heritage.”
IF MUNICIPAL AND PROVINCIAL AUTHORITIES let things continue as they have, there’s not likely to be much heritage left to protect. The river’s dry-weather woes are just one symptom in an array of problems whose solution will require a holistic imagination regarding the river, the lake, the surrounding watersheds, and their interconnected value.
Assessed property values in Lake Cowichan rose 16.5 percent in 2019, three times the increase for assessment rates in Oak Bay. New residents are loving the place to death. They have now disturbed more than 30 percent of the shoreline. But it’s not just householders.
The lure of idyllic surroundings in the midst of the natural beauty of Cowichan Lake and its river has brought development and the swimming rafts, boat docks and retaining walls that come with it
Forestry accounts for another 48 percent of shoreline disturbance. Logging in the watershed occurs on cycles vastly shorter than originally envisaged. Forest management once called for logged areas not to be harvested again until replanted trees were at least 120 years old. The plan was to let second growth mature until it, too, became old growth. Automation, efficiency and markets brought pressure to harvest on half that cycle. And now, with insufficient wood supply a looming issue, the pressure is on to reduce the logging cycle to 40 years.
Land held for working forest at lower tax rates, and then sold to developers who bid up value for desirable beach-front has sparked a property boom. Subdivisions now sprawl along lakefront once reserved for logging every 100 years.
New householders strip riparian cover to improve views. They install boat docks (there are now 600 of them on the lake), groom natural beaches to remove natural imperfections, and then build concrete retaining walls and embed rip-rap to stabilize banks and control erosion. Wash from powerboats and fluctuating seasonal water levels wear away the modified foreshore once held in place by vegetation.
Joe Saysell, a retired logger who’s lived on the Cowichan River for 70 years and is one of those fishing guides who goes out with a bucket to salvage trout and salmon fry, likens the process to death by a thousand cuts. Everybody, he says, reasonably wants to make their own small modification to the landscape for convenience or esthetics, or to increase market value, and few take heed of the unreasonable incremental impacts.
“It all adds up,” Saysell says. “Cutting down willows whose roots stabilize the banks so you can have a better view. Taking rocks out of the bottom to create a swimming hole for your kids. Putting in a boat dock and then mooring a boat with a big motor that leaves a big wake. Each one another little nick. But after a while, all those little nicks add up, and you really start bleeding big time. Then, without knowing it, you discover you’ve cut an artery.”
Retired logger and fishing guide Joe Saysell rescues stranded fry in a drying side channel of the Cowichan River
The river, he says, is the small canary in the bigger coal mine shaped by climate change, population pressure, and a dithering failure of political will to address critical problems before they cascade into interconnected catastrophes. “The canary is still alive, but he’s really starting to gasp,” Saysell warns. “People don’t see things until they’ve already happened. They don’t see it until it’s too late.”
There’s a high-tech analogy. We’re all flying along at 10 kilometres altitude in a spanking-new passenger jet. But back there in the cabin, some folks are pulling rivets from the fuselage for souvenirs. The aircraft is over-designed, it’s got many redundant safety systems. It can certainly withstand the pulling of a few rivets. But pull enough rivets and eventually you’ll come to the one that ensures the integrity of the whole complicated structure. Pull that rivet and the air frame disintegrates.
So, what’s the rivet for the ecosystem of which the Cowichan River is just one part? Nobody knows. But, Saysell says, we should now be looking at every problem as though it could be the tipping point.
“Look,” he says, “we used to have great steelhead runs into the Englishman River, the Qualicum River, the Nanaimo. Runs that went on year after year. Year after year they went up and down. Then they started going down just a tad more than they went up. Then one year there were none. They were just gone. Overnight. Just like that. I worry that we are going to lose the Cowichan the same way. This [river] is the gem of all gems in this province. And yet we dicker and dicker and dicker over what to do. Everything can only take so much. One day it’s just going to end.”
AT 82, DAVID ANDERSON, the former federal fisheries minister, still looks the rangy, raw-boned athlete who won a silver medal in rowing at the 1960 Olympic Games. Loved and hated for his tough conservation policies, he arguably had the biggest impact for West Coast salmon of any fisheries minister before or since. He’s now a member of the Cowichan Watershed Board.
Anderson, too, thinks solutions to problems facing the beleaguered ecosystem will be found in a holistic approach. That means, he says, having a mature discussion about the connections between logging in watershed headwaters and downstream problems which, in turn, can have serious implications for industry, municipal governments, and the general public. “We have to take a new look at forest management policies,” Anderson says.
Saysell, once a logger himself, concurs. He recently wrote to the provincial government, raising concerns. None of the accelerating changes he’s witnessed in logging practice on private lands surrounding Cowichan Lake have been for the better.
“I now see a complete destruction of our watershed, and especially the Cowichan River, all because of irresponsible headwater second-growth logging done on private forest land,” says Saysell. “The second growth on our mountains, especially in the Cowichan watershed, is being ‘mined’ at an unsustainable rate, and is being harvested 60 to 100 years too soon. Proper regulations would require all second growth to be as least 100 to 150 years old before it can be harvested.”
Second-growth timber from forest surrounding Cowichan Lake stacked up at a log sort
He argues that large stands of maturing old growth are crucial for the upper catchment basins of the 53 streams feeding into the watershed, because such forest creates a vast natural blotter. It absorbs rain and delays snowmelt, releasing it gradually throughout hotter, increasingly rain-free summers.
As climate warms, scientists point out, weather extremes are amplified. The outlook for Vancouver Island is for wetter winters and drier summers. It’s estimated that summer rainfall into the watershed will decrease by up to 30 percent over the next 30 years, while most of the annual precipitation—less and less of it snow—will occur over a few winter months.
Reducing or eliminating clear-cuts in upper watersheds reduces downslope erosion during heavy winter rains. More old growth creates a better-balanced flow of water into the lake, the river’s vast holding tank. Equally important, Saysell says, more old growth provides a mechanism for industry obtaining the same yield but with far less environmental impact.
By allowing trees to mature for 150 years, he says, far less timber must be cut to produce the same quantity of superior quality wood. Thus, while maintaining wood supply, the erosion footprint is greatly reduced, lake and river hydrology are stabilized and made more sustainable, winter range for deer and elk are improved—and mature forests are larger carbon sinks, another way of mitigating global warming.
Anderson, whose great-uncle was a fishing guide on the river a century ago—he used to pole his way upstream in a dugout canoe—says evidence of the impact of watershed logging shows up in the “yo-yo effect” of rapidly rising and falling lake levels following big rain events. Spikes in runoff erode hillsides, cause side-streams to blow out, spill silt into spawning beds, wash away fish eggs, undercut banks, and push torrents of gravel downstream.
What’s the solution?
First, Saysell says, the provincial government should intervene. It can end a decade of dithering by corporate, municipal and private interests regarding potential liability, and raise the weir at Cowichan Lake so it holds back more winter rain for summer release.
It’s estimated that $10 million would cover the cost of raising and modernizing the weir, although other estimates say it could be done for as little as $3 million. In any event, considering that government spent $12.5 million on three traffic signs to tell drivers to slow down when it’s snowing, the amount required to save the river doesn’t seem excessive.
By comparison, one bridge replacement in Victoria cost $105 million, a couple of local interchanges cost $120 million, and the regional district estimates a final overall cost of $275 million for upgrading bike routes to “a standard where cyclists of all ages and abilities will feel comfortable.”
IN THE BIG PICTURE, perhaps the remaining second growth would be more valuable if it were never cut. The future of the Cowichan Valley is trending to tourism and away from resource extraction. Tourism has generated more than $200 billion in revenue over the last decade in BC, growing by an astonishing 41 percent. It brought more people to BC in 2018 than there are citizens, just over six million.
Consider this example provided by the BC Chamber of Commerce: in 2012, there were plans to log 60 hectares of old-growth timber in a coastal cut block on the North Island. A wilderness kayaking camp was operating in the middle of a proposed clear-cut. The value of the logged timber was estimated at $3.6 million, but the trees could only be logged every 60 years. So, the timber was actually worth about $60,000 a year. The kayak enterprise, however, brought in about $416,000 a year. It operated every year. Over 60 years it would generate $24,960,000—about seven times the value of the timber. The trees were worth far more, left standing, for the kayak operation, the Chamber acknowledged, than logged.
Does government have the right to impose logging standards and practices on private land? Well it does on mine. I must obtain a permit from the municipality to cut trees, even if I deem them a hazard. And it does on Anderson’s. He pointed to a number of Garry oak trees in his back yard that are strictly protected. Similar restrictions govern most small, private property owners.
But Saysell points out that logging companies with timber holdings on private land are not subject to the same forest management policies as those with timber rights on public land. Under the Private Managed Forest Land Act, he says, such companies pay far lower taxes than other private land holders. This is purportedly an incentive to replant for future harvesting.
The lower taxes nevertheless represent a subsidy. The public has a right, indeed an obligation, he says, to recover that subsidy, should the company decide to sell forest land for other purposes after logging it. If they sell forest land to developers, Saysell argues, “then they should be taxed at the higher land value [for housing] retroactively, right back to the time they first purchased the land.”
“In my experience,” says Anderson, “if somebody takes the benefit of lower taxes, then the state has a say in management.”
Saysell, the former faller, makes a cogent argument for imposing the same management practices, guided by environmental science and rigorous cost/benefit analysis, on both public and private forest land. “Government has to enact new regulations for private managed forest lands, especially for harvesting methods and annual cut rates that will have sufficient rules and laws in them to stop these unsustainable and irresponsible practices that are destroying our beautiful Cowichan River and Cowichan watershed.”
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. He’s the author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays.