Alistair speaks on the importance of the Lake Cowichan Weir

Mr. Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan—Malahat—Langford, NDP): Madam Speaker, on December 6, 2017, I rose in the House during question period to ask the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans about the Liberals' promise to protect communities from climate change with investments in green infrastructure. I specifically alluded to the state of the Cowichan River in my riding of Cowichan—Malahat—Langford. I wanted the minister to specifically commit to making sure that federal funds were there to raise a critical piece of infrastructure, the Cowichan weir.

    I want to back up a bit and explain what is going on. Every summer, around the end of August and into September, the Cowichan River gets down to critically low flow rates because of the effects of climate change. We are not having the lake retain as much water. The snow pack is lowering, and as a result, we are dealing with flow rates that can sometimes go as low as four cubic metres per second.

    This is an iconic river. It is a heritage river, and when that river is flowing at only four cubic metres per second, we can barely see the water move. It looks like a still and placid lake. What that does is that the temperature starts rising. We start losing access to tributaries, and it poses a very real threat to fish and fish habitat.

    I also want to acknowledge the important work that is being done in the Cowichan Valley, both through Cowichan Tribes and the Cowichan Valley Regional District. They have come together to form the Cowichan Watershed Board. We also have a number of stakeholders that have come together to form the Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable, including Catalyst Paper, which owns the weir. All of these organizations have come together in a 100% consensus and have agreed that the solution to the long-term problem of the Cowichan River is to build a new weir so we can hold back more water in the lake. By holding back more lake supply water, we will be more successful at controlling the flow rate to make sure that an adequate flow of water is running down that river in the dry summer months so that fish and fish habitat can be saved.

    During the minister's response to my question, he acknowledged that the government is proceeding with Bill C-68. We support that legislation, and we are glad to see that some of those changes from the 2012 amendments to the Fisheries Act are being repealed. However, one of the criticisms we had of Bill C-68 during second reading, before we sent it to committee for further study, was that in the definition of fish habitat, there was not any explicit legal protection for environmental flows, which really means the amount and type of water that is needed for fish and aquatic ecosystems to flourish. This is a big oversight, because by controlling flow rates and making sure they are adequate, they actually work.

     I will give the example of the Jordan River, also in my riding of Cowichan—Malahat—Langford. The Jordan River has suffered from a copper mine and from B.C. Hydro dams. It has had a lot of work done to it over the years. They found recently, in 2008, when they increased the flow rates in the Jordan River, that, surprise, fish and fish habitat started returning and becoming a lot more healthy.

    I want to specifically ask the parliamentary secretary if he will honour the Liberal promise to build this green infrastructure. Will he commit the necessary federal funds to ensure that the Lake Cowichan weir can be raised?

 

Mr. Terry Beech (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Lib.): Madam Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for the question in relation to the Cowichan Lake weir. I would also like to state that in addition to asking this question of the minister, the member has brought up this issue with me as well.

    The Cowichan River is a British Columbia heritage river with significant cultural and historical importance, and it supports significant populations of salmon, as was mentioned by the member opposite. As an islander, I spent significant time during my childhood camping and exploring areas around Cowichan Lake and Cowichan River.

     Healthy fish and fish habitat play a critical role in the Canadian economy and are a strong measure of our environmental health. That is why it is so important that we safeguard the health of our fish as well as the habitat in which they live, feed, reproduce, and migrate.

    The continued well-being of Pacific salmon and their habitats is a high priority for the residents of Cowichan Valley Regional District, the Cowichan Tribes, the Lake Cowichan First Nation, and, frankly, all British Columbians and all Canadians. Our government is deeply committed to ensuring that these iconic species are protected for future generations.

    As a result of climate change and other factors, we know that inflows from Cowichan Lake have been reduced. We also understand that the weir constructed in 1957 at the outflow of the lake is no longer adequate to ensure sufficient storage in drought conditions, which have been occurring more frequently in the past 20 years.

    However, the problem at the Cowichan Lake weir is complex, and a long-term solution needs appropriate planning and consultation. It will require the involvement of a number of partners and significant funding to be implemented. That is why Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been working with the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the Cowichan Tribes, the Lake Cowichan First Nation, other federal departments, the Province of British Columbia, and industry to discuss a proposal to increase the height to the weir and to examine potential funding mechanisms. We are committed to this ongoing dialogue and to finding a long-term solution to resolve the issues of the Cowichan watershed.

    Departmental officials are engaged in the Cowichan water use planning process, which works with all local stakeholders to address long-term water needs for fish and local residents. However, while the work to consider the Cowichan Lake weir proposal is under way, this government is also taking action and is concurrently making investments in habitat restoration and salmon stock assessment projects on the Cowichan River.

    Fisheries and Oceans Canada currently has two active projects on the Cowichan system that will deliver mainstem riparian rehabilitation projects on the lower Cowichan River over a three-year period and is working with resource professionals, youth, volunteers, private landowners, and the community at large to restore lake and river shoreline properties.

    The oceans protection plan is a historic $1.5 billion investment that will make our oceans safer, healthier, and cleaner for generations to come, and it includes support for the restoration of the Pacific salmon habitat. As salmon are a migratory species, the benefits from our government's investments in coastal restoration projects will therefore extend beyond the boundaries of the river system itself into the Georgia Strait ecosystem and also benefit species such as the endangered southern resident killer whales, which rely on salmon as their primary food source.

    In addition, amendments to the Fisheries Act that we have introduced in Bill C-68 are intended to incorporate modern safeguards and restore protections lost as a result of changes that were made to the act by the previous government. These amendments were mentioned by the member opposite, who is also supportive. These changes will provide additional protections to fish and fish habitat across Canada, including habitat in the very important Cowichan River.

    I can assure the member that Fisheries and Oceans Canada is committed to the ongoing conservation and protection of Cowichan River salmon and their habitat. We continue to invest in restoration projects that will benefit chinook salmon within the system, and we will continue to work with our partners to evaluate potential solutions and funding options for work at the Cowichan Lake weir.

 

Mr. Alistair MacGregor: Madam Speaker, I thank the parliamentary secretary for his comments. I am encouraged, and I do know that officials from DFO have been working closely with a lot of local stakeholders.

    It is indeed true that there are a lot of moving parts to this project, but I want to have the assurance that when the Cowichan Tribes, the CVRD, and Catalyst are putting all of this effort to come together with a comprehensive scientific study and eventually come up with a number describing the rate at which the Cowichan River has to flow in order to maintain a healthy fish population, when all of that local work has been done, the federal government will be there to play its part and live up to its statutory duty to protect fish and fish habitat in the Cowichan River.

 

Mr. Terry Beech: Madam Speaker, the minister recognizes the significance of the Cowichan River in supporting important populations of Pacific salmon. DFO is aware of the changes in flow that have occurred within the system and that the weir at the outflow of the lake is no longer adequate to ensure sufficient storage in drought conditions. That is why DFO officials have been working with our partners to find a long-term solution to this issue and find potential funding sources to implement it. Concurrently, our government is also taking action on Pacific salmon through the coastal restoration fund, meeting the Cohen conditions, and implementing the wild salmon policy.

    I can assure the member that we understand the significance of the Cowichan River salmon and that we are committed to ongoing dialogue with our partners to find a long-term solution to the issues identified by the member opposite at the Cowichan Lake weir.