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Group calls for local control over Cowichan Valley watershed

A Cowichan Valley citizens' group in favour of local water management hopes to convince provincial candidates to commit to delegating control over the region's watershed to a local authority in advance of the B.C. election.

The non-partisan group One Cowichan is calling for control of the Cowichan Valley watershed to move to the Cowichan Watershed Board.

The proposal involves a complicated legislative change, but Matt Price, a member of One Cowichan, said that the board is better equipped to manage the watershed because its members have the expertise to do so. Members of the board, which currently plays a mostly advisory role, include local First Nations representatives, mayors and natural resource and public health consultants.

"We think this would be a precedent or model for other places," said Price. "Because the Cowichan Watershed Board has existed for awhile, I think we're ready for this."

Kerry Davis, the BC Green Party candidate for Cowichan Valley in the upcoming election, fully supports the group's proposal.

"I think it is better to have local people have more control over their destiny rather than distant public servants, who certainly aren't as affected by it if they don't live there," he said.

The watershed has been affected by contamination over the years, and has suffered a dwindling population of salmon. The most pressing issue is control of the weir at Cowichan Lake, which is used to control water flow during the summer and fall months.

The weir is owned by the provincial government but operated by Catalyst Paper, as the company's pulp mill relies on the lake as water supply for its operations.

Control of the weir became a bone of contention after a record-breaking drought threatened salmon populations in the Cowichan River last fall, raising questions about who should manage the weir.

BC NDP MLA for Cowichan Valley Bill Routley said before the crisis, he approached the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources with concerns heard from local mayors, a Cowichan Valley Regional District director, and a First Nations leader that water would run out too quickly if the weir was lowered, given weather patterns at the time.

"They wanted to raise the weir to make sure they had a pulse they could give to the fish, so they asked me if I supported them and, to me, it was a no-brainer," said Routley.

But the B.C. government decided not to raise the weir, Routley said.

According to Doug Routley, the NDP MLA for Nanaimo-North Cowichan, salmon were trapped in the bay and in pockets of water along the riverbed, unable to swim along the river. People tried to transport salmon up the river in buckets, but a significant number of fish died, he said.

The Tyee canvassed several candidates in the Cowichan Valley and Nanaimo-North Cowichan ridings, and while not all were sure what the final outcome might look like, they all seem to agree that a certain level of local input into the management of the watershed is necessary.

"I don't think it has to necessarily be local control so much as a willingness of provincial authorities to respond to local and scientific evidence," said Steve Housser, the BC Liberal candidate for Cowichan Valley.

"I know it's messy, but you have a better result when everybody gets to talk about it together," said the BC Green candidate for Nanaimo-North Cowichan, Mayo Mcdonough. "It's sometimes a bit messy, but it's organic, and organic is often messy."

BC Conservative candidate for Cowichan Valley, Damir Wallener, said that while his party has no official policy on water management, he thinks it's important that a non-partisan group is bringing the issue to the forefront for discussion, and will be meeting with them next week.

"That's what the democratic process is all about," said Wallener.

Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA Routley said that unintended consequences of delegating local control of the watershed ought to be considered, however.

"Local control, as long as it's something that people agree with, is good," he said. "But what if... you have council or group controlling a watershed and they decide it's OK to accept a project that will threaten the health of the river or fish stocks for the economic benefits?"

Price said that, from his experience, One Cowichan is pushing for what the locals in the area want.

"Unless we get some systemic fix here, things will begin to boil over locally," he said.

Carly Rhianna Smith is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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