THE KOKSILAH WATERSHED
The Koksilah River, Xwulqw'selu Sto'lo, Watershed (the Watershed) is located south of Duncan on Vancouver Island and lies within the traditional territories of Cowichan Tribes, Malahat Nation and other First Nations.
The Koksilah River originates on the slopes of Waterloo Mountain, southwest of Shawnigan Lake. It flows eastward for approximately 44 km before discharging into the Cowichan/Koksilah estuary. The watershed area is approximately 302 square kilometres. The main tributaries of the Koksilah River are Fellows Creek in the west, and Kelvin, Patrolas, Howie and Glenora creeks, which enter the Koksilah about 4-6 km upstream of the estuary in Cowichan Bay, which it shares with the Cowichan River.
The Cowichan and Koksilah Rivers were historically connected through side-channels where Duncan is currently situated. Sh-hwuykwselu (which translates loosely to “Busy Place”) was a historical connection and intersection between the two rivers where people gathered before continuing up the Cowichan or Koksilah rivers. Today the place name Sh-hwuykwselu is still carried by a small lower tributary of the Koksilah River, and the name Xwulqw'selu is the name of a Cowichan village nearby.
Map used with permission from koksilahwatershed.org
This low elevation river without a regulation structure (dam) supports over 1,100 water users, including irrigators, dairies, vineyards, and domestic households. The Koksilah River is especially valued for its:
Cultural & Spiritual significance: The Koksilah (Xwulqw'selu) Watershed is central to the identity of the Quw'utsun Mustimuhw. A prominent, multi-summit ridge named Hwsalu-utsum (formerly known as Koksilah Ridge), is central to Quw'utsun Origin stories. Hwsalu-utsum is where the first man, Syalutsa, fell from the sky. Hwsalu-utsum is the origin or headwaters of several tributaries that flow into the Xwulqw'selu Sto'lo (Koksilah River); including Wild Deer Creek, Kelvin Creek and Glenora Creek. There are many sacred places and cultural stories associated with this ridge as well as across the entire watershed. On the southern slopes of Hwsalu-utsum the pockets of rare grasslands have important plants with both spiritual and practical uses. The Xwulqw'selu Watershed is critically important not only spiritually and for its Origin stories, but also as an important area for fishing, harvesting plants, and hunting.
Fish & Wildlife: The Koksilah River supports regionally significant aquatic ecosystems and fish species, including chinook, coho and chum salmon as well as steelhead and resident trout. These fish populations are both culturally and economically significant to local First Nations. It is essential to the survival of many species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.
Farms & Vineyards: Approximately 15% of the lower watershed supports a significant agricultural community including many large dairy farms as well as smaller mixed and organic farms. The pastoral landscape is a also a favorite wine-touring route and is a thriving and expanding rural tourism business.
Forest: Approximately 73% of the Koksilah Watershed is Privately Managed Forest Lands and another 6% is Crown Forestry Lands.
Recreation Opportunities: The Koksilah Watershed is home to several parks including the Koksilah River Provincial Park. It is enjoyed by many in the valley as a refreshing place to swim on hot summer days because the water temperature is always cooler than the Cowichan River. It is also used extensively by white water paddlers, particularly in the winter months.
The Current Challenge
Summer flows in the Koksilah River have been exceptionally low in recent years at times when demand for water is the greatest. This threatens the survival of resident and anadromous salmonid species and the aquatic ecosystem.
In August 2019, Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) biologists determined that the flow levels were too low to support adequate habitat conditions. A Ministerial Order to cease using water was issued to specific water users (both surface and groundwater licensees and unlicensed groundwater users) to protect fish populations. The Order was issued on August 16th, 2019 and repealed on September 18th, 2019 when river flows increased.
Over the last number of years, FLNRORD staff, Cowichan Tribes, community members, organizations and consultants have undertaken several initiatives to better understand and encourage voluntary reductions in water use. While these initiatives have improved awareness and our collective understanding of the complex hydrology of the system, the factors affecting the flow rates are still unclear.
There is a need to better understand the relationship between water users, watershed residents and the watershed.
What is clear is that the Koksilah watershed is experiencing erratic flow levels throughout the year which is endangering the health of the entire ecosystem. , It is also clear that impacts on the watershed have been accentuated by climate change. With low elevation, the watershed is losing snow earlier and has more rain in the winter leading to more floods. The current trajectory of the Koksilah River is dire and will impact everyone in the entire watershed.
"… the flow of water in the Koksilah River has dropped below 180 litres per second and is so low that the survival of populations of anadromous and resident trout, including steelhead, in the stream have become threatened."
Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forest, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development
Ministerial Order M280, Aug 16, 2019.
"Groundwater extraction has the most impact during low flow times of the year, when salmon depend on cooling groundwater inflows for their survival. If wells are drawing from shallow aquifers closely connected to the river, groundwater extraction will immediately reduce in-stream flows. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, in-stream flows in the Koksilah were forecast to become dangerously low, and provincial managers requested voluntary reductions in water use. In each of these years, an order to cease water diversion was under preparation in case voluntary efforts were not enough. In August 2019, a Fish Population Protection Order was issued under the Water Sustainability Act"
Gower, T. & Barroso, A.
Tapped Out: A Special Report on Water Scarcity and Water Solutions in British Columbia (2019)
Where do we go from here?
Unlike the Cowichan River, the Koksilah is an uncontrolled river with no storage and as such, there are limited options available to manage flows. The only options available to us are to change our current practices around land use and water use. Most importantly, the Koksilah River is challenging all of us to work together to collaboratively identify and implement solutions that will impact us all. New collaborations and partnerships are emerging.
An informal “Koksilah drought management team” has been formed to discuss how to collaboratively make short term in-season decisions and work with water users to navigate periods of low flow. This ad-hoc group is comprised of representatives from FLNRORD, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Cowichan Station’s Koksilah Working Group, BC Dairy Association, BC Agriculture Council, Cowichan Watershed Board, Farmland Advantage, Water Survey of Canada, Cowichan Estuary Nature Centre and private forestry representatives. Please see the Koksilah Working Group’s webpage for more information on this process.
In the longer term, an innovative government to government partnership has been struck between Cowichan Tribes and the FNLRORD to explore and scope the feasibility of initiating a joint Water Sustainability Planning process, an innovative new tool under BC’s Water Sustainability Act (2016).
For more information about the potential of Water Sustainability Plans, see Curran, D. and O.M. Brandes. 2019 Water Sustainability Plans: Potential, Options and Essential Content (2019) by Deborah Curran and Oliver M. Brandes, University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre and the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance.
"As one element in the modernized provincial water regime, Water Sustainability Plans are a promising tool that can enable and enhance adaptive water management and new governance relationships that express core elements of government-to-government relationships for water and watersheds, as well as address the challenges of environmental flows, sustainable groundwater management, drought planning and protecting and enhancing watershed health."
Deborah Curran & Oliver M. Brandes
Water Sustainability Plans: Potential, Options and Essential Content (2019)