Background to Cowichan Estuary

The Cowichan/Koksilah Estuary

The Cowichan/Koksilah Estuary is formed by the Koksilah and Cowichan Rivers which share the same floodplain and marshlands in the transitional zone between land and water. Historically and for centuries this highly productive estuary has provided the livelihood of First Nation people offering a rich and diverse sustainable harvest of shellfish, salmon, herring roe and seaweed. Due to its mild micro-climate and naturally abundant food sources the estuary and adjacent lands had always been considered a preferred settlement area by First Nation people.

This all changed with the arrival of the first white settlers in the Cowichan Valley by the middle of the 19th century, hand-in-hand with the start-up of the logging industry in the hinterland. In the 1870s logging, log rafting and log driving had the first dramatic effect on the ecological integrity of the Cowichan River and the estuary. Adverse environmental impacts related to the forestry industry in the Cowichan Valley have grown progressively worse ever since. Environmental problems were compounded by increasing settlement of the Cowichan-Koksilah floodplain affiliated with the construction of dykes and other flood control measures related to growing urbanization and agriculture. In the 1920s the railway construction through the tidal flats of the Cowichan estuary connecting the newly built sea-port with inland logging further exacerbated the problems. The establishment of the Cowichan Bay sawmill in the 1970s and the capacity to ship forest products from the port now located in the center of the estuary added to the problems.

The combination of forestry-related impacts, agriculture and sewage discharge from urban development led to the ban of shellfish harvest in the estuary in the 1970s, which still is in effect until today. In the 1990s changing summer flows and non-point source pollution from winter runoff became more noticeable. With the phasing-out of shipping lumber from Cowichan Bay and the abandonment of timber storage on the Westcan Terminal in the 2000s the pressure on the estuary has started to slowly decrease. However it is estimated that 50% of the estuary’s integrity has been lost over the years.

  The Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Plan

The Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Plan (CEEMP) was ratified in 1987 and implemented under the auspices of the former Ministry of Environment which had spearheaded the participatory inter-agency CEEMP planning process. The CEEMP constituted a key document guiding the Cowichan Bay Estuary management for the past 25 years.

The Plan has not been updated for the past 25 years, although it has been subject to a review in 2005 that has not been acted upon comprehensively.

Key achievements and elements of the CEEMP are:

(a) The stratification of the estuary into the following  use zones:

  • Industrial/Commercial
  • Agriculture
  • Habitat Management
  • Conservation/Recreation
  • Log Storage

(b) Allocation of distinct areas to forestry companies for well-defined uses;

(c) Concrete agreements between the Ministry of Environment and CNR; and

(d) Well defined Lease agreements between CNR and the forestry companies operating in the estuary.

The review report of the CEEMP (Vis-à-vis Consultants, 2005) states that:

“…the CEEMP had been a compromise between environmental concerns for the well-being of the estuary, the CNR and the four forest-related companies extensively using inter-tidal areas of the estuary for log storage/sorting and the Westcan facilities for lumber storage and shipping. Although it is widely recognized that the compromise reached for the CEEMP clearly favored the powerful forestry lobby at the time, it is equally recognized that the participatory planning process leading to the consensus agreement of the plan did result in an overall improvement over the formerly unacceptable levels of adverse environmental impacts mostly caused by the forestry companies operating in the estuary”.

The Canadian National Railway as the owner (deeded land) of Lot 160 comprising 731 acres of prime estuary inter-tidal area, and Doman Industries who owned the area which today accommodates the Cowichan Bay Saw Mill were the two major stakeholders at the time the management plan had been negotiated. The Cowichan Bay Saw Mill is currently owned and operated by Western Forest Products Ltd.

Shortly after the CEEMP came into effect (late 1980s) the Canadian National Railway turned over all 731 acres of Lot 160 and the related Leases to the Government. In December 1990 District Lot 160 was officially acquired by the Ministry of Environment. The Leases at the time associated with Lot 160 and honored by The Government on taking over the property, were split amongst the following five leaseholders:

  • Doman Industries: Leases related to intertidal log storage areas and the canal serving log transport to the mill pond;
  • British Columbia Forest Products (BCFP): Leases related to intertidal log storage area and log dumping/sorting;
  • McMillan Bloedel (M&B): Leases related to intertidal log storage area and log sorting;
  • Falt Towing Ltd.: Lease related to a 6 acre intertidal log storage area adjacent to the Westcan dock and the lumber storage area;
  • Tidal Harmony Holdings: Leases related to the Westcan Terminal and the loading dock/harbor facility

BCFP and M&B meanwhile ceased to exist. Falt Towing Ltd. is still in operation but does not appear to use its lease of the six acres adjacent to Westcan for log storage.

The original Lease agreement related to the Westcan Terminal between Tidal Harmony Holdings and the CNR (as land owner when the lease agreement was first established) reads as follows:

the leaseholder to operate the lumber loading port facility accessed by truck along the private industrial land road constructed by M&B and the CNR and (related area) to be operated for the storage and shipping of lumber only…

According to the CEEMP all new project proposals for the estuary have to be approved by the Ministry of Lands, Forests and Natural Resources (MLFNR) after review by the Environmental Assessment Committee which is composed of the MLFNR, the CVRD and Federal Fisheries & Oceans. It was noted in the CEEMP review report that the approval process of project proposals involving new estuary projects and activities has generally been cumbersome, lengthy and lacked transparency.

The approval process still applies today regardless of the nature of the proposal. All new projects are subject to ministerial approval. Any re-zoning has to be approved by B.C. Legislature. The Municipality of North Cowichan and the CVRD are mandated to create bylaws and policies guiding the use within the different zones described in the CEEMP.

  Changing Perceptions

The Review of the Cowichan Estuary Management Plan clearly indicates that the CEEMP does not reflect the Zeitgeist any longer due to the dramatic changes that have taken place during the past 25 years; changes in estuary use pattern, changes in the forestry industry and leaseholders, demographic changes in Cowichan Bay and -very important- changes in public perception of appropriate use of an estuary, growing environmental awareness, and the realization of the need for checks and balances. The overall recommendation of the CEEMP review is to generate a new management plan for the estuary based on a holistic approach that includes the water catchment areas of the Koksilah and Cowichan Rivers in compliance with current public environmental expectations.

There is a precedent that once those portions of industrial Leases in the Estuary not used for industrial purposes will be transferred to the Ministry of Environment for estuary management and conservation as stipulated in the Land Act Subsection 101 (2) (quoted herein), which was attached to Map ID 1405538 of the Leases transferred to the Ministry of Environment for estuary management and conservation in December 1990:

District Lot 160 was acquired by the Ministry from the CN in December 1990. This site is characterized by a mix of salt marsh, mud flats, river channels and open water and has in the past, been used for industrial purposes. It is also, however, of prime importance for anadromous fish rearing and migratory wild fowl feeding, stopping and wintering. As a result, the entire lot was acquired by the Crown with the ultimate intent of transferring all those portions no longer used for industrial purposes to the Ministry of Environment for estuary management and conservation.”

  Efforts to improve the health of the Cowichan/Koksilah Estuary

Full credit is due to the numerous efforts by civil society, government and non-government organizations and individuals who in the past and present have actively been involved with projects related to estuarine habitat enhancement and who never tired lobbying for a sound stewardship of the estuary in full recognition of its ecological, cultural, sociological and economic values against strong opposition from commercial and industrial interests.

It is widely recognized that the Cowichan Estuary Preservation Society as one of the Key environmental groups in the past played a major role in the development of the CEEMP and the following decades, relentlessly fighting industrial expansion, industrial trespassing and non-compliance with the rules and guidelines established for and governing the estuary management.

The enormous efforts by Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Trust and The Cowichan Land Trust in purchasing most of the marshlands adjacent to the estuary for habitat protection deserve special mention. Also the efforts by Cowichan Tribes, The Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Association in conjunction with the DFO and Environment Canada, who have conducted surveys and restoration projects in the estuary (e.g., Stoltz slide rehabilitation, salmon enhancement, eel grass planting, juvenile fish surveys, back-channel development etc.) should be given full recognition.

The newly established Cowichan Bay Nature Centre created with the assistance of the Cowichan Land Trust and many volunteers is also a significant achievement by the local community. It is expected to serve a vital function in the much needed environmental education and awareness building process with focus on the Cowichan Bay Estuary.

Another effort worth mentioning is the on-going planning in context with the Cowichan River Basin Water Use Management Plan with the establishment of the Cowichan Watershed Board in 2010 and the watershed targets and projects it is developing at this time.

The Somenos Marsh Plan covering the Somenos wetlands and adjacent uplands is another laudable effort to be noted in this context. It is hoped that in the future a physical link can be established between the Somenos Marsh and the Cowichan Estuary.

In this context the recently adopted holistic approach to a more responsible and sustainable estuary management is reflected by the “Draft Cowichan Recovery Plan”, a First Nation Initiative addressing the water catchment areas of the two tributaries of the Cowichan Estuary.

This Plan is expected to provide a sound basis for a watershed management plan that also addresses upstream root causes of adverse environmental impacts on the Cowichan Bay Estuary. This is a progressive spatial land use planning approach that significantly differs from the comparatively narrow scope of the CEEMP planning area. The Cowichan Tribes formulated at their 2003 workshop clear objectives for the estuary:

  • Water quality improvement
  • Eel grass health
  • Removal of wood waste from log booming
  • Focus on entire watershed feeding the estuary
  • Reduction and removal of industrial users
  • Biophysical inventories and monitoring the recuperation process

The Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Plan may well have been the best compromise to be achieved at the time the Plan came into effect; and the CEEMP also may have served planners of the CVRD and the Municipality of North Cowichan as a good planning guideline; however, it insufficiently or failed to address numerous problems and issues that have and continue to result in adverse ecological, environmental, social/cultural and economic impacts, some of which are ‘just’ a nuisance but affecting the life quality of Cowichan Bay residents. To name a few:

(a) Severe loss of eel grass habitat and the ecosystem it supports due to log booms and tugboat activity for the sawmill in the estuary.

(b) Water and Soil Contamination:

  • Run-off from creosoted and sap stain-treated lumber and timber currently or previously stored at the Westcan Terminal;
  • Contaminated material falling into the estuary and deep sea from a deteriorating dock;
  • Mill pond contamination from hydrogen-sulfide, discarded used oil and lubricants from the dismantled sawmill stored at the Western Forest Product Mill site;
  • Contamination and nutrient loading from fertilizer and liquid manure originating from the farms located in the Cowichan/Koksilah floodplain and adjacent to the river channels.

(c) Noise issues:

  • Noise from the Cowichan Bay sawmill with negative impacts on Cowichan Bay First Nation- and Khenipsen-/Cowichan Bay road residents;
  • Waterfowl hunting during the fall hunting season;
  • Trucking products from saw mill along Cowichan Bay Road.

Light pollution:

  • Illumination of Cowichan Bay Sawmill and Westcan Terminal obscuring night sky, irritating bird life and adversely impacting on nocturnal invertebrates.

Visual Impacts:

  • Unsightly contemporary buildings on Westcan Terminal and decrepit houseboats and docks tied to the dock at the Terminal;
  • Industrial waste littering the Westcan Terminal and former lumber storage area;
  • Industrial Waste on Westcan Area;
  • Deteriorating Dock and Westcan loading facility.

It should be recognized that:

The Cowichan Bay Estuary is owned by the Province of British Columbia in trust for the people of the province. This includes the mandate of the BC Government to responsibly manage this fragile ecosystem for sustainable biodiversity conservation for the benefit of Cowichan First Nations and Cowichan Bay residents who have the largest stake in the Estuary.

Stewardship for the estuary should be a shared responsibility of all stakeholders to be based on a common long-term vision aptly expressed by the Cowichan Watershed Council under the heading:

“To restore traditional and sustainable shellfish harvest in the Cowichan Estuary” (By the year 2020)

The CEEMP review report highlighted the following key issues of concern related to the implementation of the management plan:

  • Overlapping mandates and insufficient legal framework
  • Lack of transparency of project proposal review process
  • Lack of transparency regarding lease transfers
  • Lack of regular inter-agency meetings
  • Poor inter-agency cooperation
  • Lack of long-term vision and clear objectives
  • Poor communication
  • No citizen involvement
  • No local government ownership
  • No periodic updating of the plan
  • Poor linkages to other planning activities

Following Key recommendations resulted from this report:

  • Clear goals, principles and objectives
  • Prioritized activities
  • Leadership but common stewardship
  • Representative pro-active Steering Committee
  • Adequately funded and accountable administrative body
  • Efficient project review process
  • Community and First Nation involvement also in the decision making process
  • Strong linkage to other plans

It is evident that a new estuary plan taking all these factors into consideration must be elaborated to meet the demands and expectation of today’s society.

Dr. Goetz Schuerholz