Joe Saysell has started breathing sighs of relief for the first time in months.
Giant tubes have begun pumping water from Cowichan Lake over a weir and directly into the Cowichan River to save it from going dry.
“This is a complete necessity,” said Saysell, who is from the Cowichan Lake Stewardship Society.
“We have to pump. Either that or we say to hell with it and let the river go, which will kill the fish that are in the river, all the salmon fry that are in there,” said Saysell.
It’s the first time in the river’s history that this dramatic intervention, expected to cost Catalyst $1 million, has been undertaken.
A week of pumping water around the clock has proven the plan worked though. River levels are staying up to 4.5 cubic metres per second to allow returning salmon to spawn and the massive employer,Catalyst’s Crofton Paper Mill, to keep operating.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” said Saysell.
“Because we’ve never pumped before but thank goodness we are pumping because at least it’s at 4.5 right now.”
Though closer to Duncan there are several kilometres of the Cowichan River that are dry. Gravel beds preventing the pumped water from reaching the river and its fish will be swimming up stream.
“I just wanted to cry,” said Harvey Alphonse, a former chief of the Cowichan Tribes.
“Because my grandkids won’t be able to reap the benefits of a healthy river,” he said.
Alphonse said the work now being done to clear gravel banks and reduce erosion through dry areas will only be a band-aid solution. He wants a long-term plan crafted now to save this river for generations to come.
“Long term strategies,” said Alphonse.
“And we need help.”
Water levels in Cowichan Lake are expected to drop by as much as 20 inches and the impact of that loss is not yet known. Catalyst has been given approval to continue pumping into December.