Earlier this past month I was able to sit in on a presentation to the council by two gentlemen who were pleading their case, once again, asking North Cowichan council to advocate on their behalf to have the Chemainus River dredged to stop the flooding of their properties. They stated that the constant silt build-up that came from up the river was caused by a multitude of reasons, from silt runoff due to older logging practices, to lack of maintenance over the years that used to be done by locals, when it was allowed. They spoke about how the river used to be dredged which created a healthy flow all year long. This experience led me to start looking into the history of dredging, and finding locals that lived here in the Valley during the ’60s and ’70s.
We all know that old saying “Back in my day”, but why are we always so quick to dismiss what comes after this statement? The fact is, there was a simpler time when communities came together to help each other and get things done with far less bureaucracy hampering outcomes. These days there is a bloated government that has to justify its existence through a thousand bylaws and ridiculous fees and permits to do such benign tasks as bringing soil onto one’s own land. Was there a better time? Were the locals able to manage their lands and waterways through community involvement and less red tape? I decided to interview a bunch of “old timer” Cowichan Valley residents and find out.
I had the pleasure of interviewing a couple in their late 70s who have lived, worked, and enjoyed the Valley their whole life. I initially went to hear about how the dredging in our local rivers and streams was done back in the ’60s/’70s, but I was pleased to just sit and listen to life back in the day, and how common sense seemed to prevail over bureaucracy.
They told me about how the Somenos Lake used to be enjoyed by locals as a popular swimming hole, and how it then became an ice-covered lake in the winter where they would gather to skate and play a good old game of hockey. This was all because the streams that fed the lake were maintained by property owners. I heard over and over about how locals took it upon themselves to clean the creeks that flowed through their properties and in turn fed the local lakes and rivers.
I enjoyed their stories of local companies, owned by people they knew, winning bids to dredge the rivers, which in turn stopped the flooding after digging out the silt. I heard about how they used the rock from the river to build up the sides of the river, and how the silt/sand was then used as ‘naturally cleaned’ sand by a local cement company. Gravel and sand, removed by dredging, was also sold as a commodity in those days, a win-win situation.
After looking at our last edition’s front cover with the Canada Avenue picture on it, one gentleman asked me “Where is the creek?”, which led me to ask him to tell me what the creek beside the police station had been like. He told me that the creek was kept so clean by residents that they used to play in it as kids and that they had never witnessed flooding in that area as we do now.
Some ‘did you know?’ knowledge I received during these interviews is that there is a massive aquifer under what is currently the pool, the new high school, and the university and that at one point it was the local’s consensus to never build north of what is currently McDonald’s. I also learned that the pull-off area next to Somenos Marsh used to have hay fields, a farm, and a farmer’s market!
Another gentleman I spoke with said back in the day he cleared out a stream running through his property to Cowichan Bay and that same year salmon came spawning back up the waterway. Later, local officials were called on him, and although he was not ‘allowed’ to do that, they said he did an amazing job, and exactly what they ‘would’ have done. He explained to me that the reason there were pools that heat up and kill the fish or serve as a catchment for an easy seal and sea-lion meal in the bay, was because the Cowichan River needed to be dredged right to the ocean; In fact, many First Nations in Cowichan Bay stated the same thing.
“If the river was dredged to the ocean”, he said, “there would not be flooding as the river would have somewhere to flow through and to”.
He also told me that the current ‘dredging’ on the river is only raising the banks and not actually digging it down, and removing the silt. He explained how the river is still there, just under the silt “as anyone would know if they just dug down”, and that is why the wells are consistent in their seasonal levels.
Three farmers have contacted me after either losing or being threatened to lose, their water licenses, therefore being unable to water their hay and food crops to help keep our local food security functioning. One Farmer was told that he was not allowed to renew his water license to water his hay for his livestock as it may be making other wells “go dry”. Another story out of Comox saw two nurseries being visited by armed “officials” stating that their well was somehow connected to the river, and therefore they can’t be using it.
You can go to governmentofbc.maps.arcgis.com and find all the well levels monitored in your area. From all the wells I found, they have remained consistent in the levels throughout the years.
As I pondered how a town, so much smaller back in the day, could manage to caretake the waterways, I remembered that I too have a stream behind my home that feeds Somenos Marsh which is almost filled in with brush now. I remember when my children were little and it was a free-flowing stream in the summer that even had a little rope swing that the kids would use to swing over it. In those days (around 14 years ago) I noticed that some group had come in and used hand-made wooden ties to hold up the banks of the stream, and I never found out who these amazing people were.
In speaking with the Somenos Marsh Society to get more information on who has jurisdiction over the health of this stream behind my house, I was told “It is a mixed bag as North Cowichan is your jurisdictional authority over the land and BC government fisheries are the jurisdictional authority for the waterway but neither are responsible for restoration. That is left to community groups “. Yet when I have spoken to locals who tried to clean their own creeks and streams they are told that they are not allowed to. The continual circle of bureaucracy.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of funding that goes into the health of the waterways, even though there is a constant narrative about how important our water is, and hundreds of thousands spent on “studies” over the years instead of old-school consultation with long-time residents to see what actually worked in the past.
In North Cowichan taxpayers have paid a .5% environmental tax for 10 years that holds a reserve fund of around $400,000. Maybe instead of always depending on volunteers to maintain much of our natural ecosystems and waterways, some funding from the Climate Action and Energy Plan funds to help create a stream keepers group? Spending this tax money on so-called “climate” actions instead of immediate local actions seems like using a macro lens when we need a micro one.
In the North Cowichan Transportation plan, it states that by 2050 they expect 3,700 new residents, while at the same time, they are applying for a Housing Accelerator Fund (H.A.F.) in which they would build 3,501 units in the next three years! That is units, of which there will be more than one person in each unit for the most part, taking showers and flushing toilets – do we have a water issue or not?
I will keep this article under novel size, as summarizing all I heard from long-time locals would fill a short story. I will say that the more I hear from the wise ‘common sense’ people, the more I realize how inefficient local governments are in many areas. What I learned was that when the rivers were dredged the fish were more abundant and there was almost no flooding, that locals took care of the streams that fed these bodies of water which in turn were therefore healthier, and that we have plenty of water below the silt and ground.
I am concerned that through this lack of maintenance, there will be more and more farmers restricted from watering based on a false premise of water scarcity, and urban folks will end up with a step system for billing their water usage,
(The convenient reason that the utilities are now removed from the yearly tax bill?).
Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent yearly on expensive studies done by people and companies that do not even reside in our valley. Maybe it is time to ditch the ‘surveys’ that no busy farmer even knows exist, that are put on websites under the guise of “community engagement” and start looking to the wisdom of our elders, speaking with them, and holding old fashion town hall meetings.
** Names have been withheld by request as some farmers are feeling intimidated by local authority representatives and they don’t want further interference.