September 4, 2009

First Nations group fights district for water rights

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A battle over resource management and clean water on south Vancouver Island came to a head when Halalt First Nation filed a petition with B.C.’s Supreme Court to review plans for a new water project before proceeding, reportsMark Hume of the Globe and Mail. Halalt opposes the North Cowichan District’s plan to dig two wells and install a 1 million gallon reservoir to provide clean drinking water for residents in the Chemainus area because the wells would draw water from an aquifer below Halalt lands.

Halalt First Nation has objected to the plan since 2003, maintaining that the aquifer cannot support that many peoples’ water needs without negatively impacting the connected Chemainus River and its fish stocks, reportsMark Kiemele in Klahowya. They are requesting creation of a watershed management plan, as well as involvement in monitoring programs for the area, before the project goes ahead.

Residents in the Chemainus area currently get their water from surface sources, which regularly suffer from high bacteria counts due to heavy rains, according to Hume. The District issues advisories several times a year for residents to boil their water. The District says drilling wells will draw up clean water, and it has agreed to halt their use if its three-year monitoring program shows negative impacts.

Halalt Chief James Thomas worries the District wouldn’t be able to stop the pumps once they were supplying thousands of homes in an area he says is already overdeveloped. The North Cowichan municipality has admitted it wants to pursue the well project mainly for financial concerns. The project would cost approximately $3 million, while building a treatment facility and reservoir for the area’s current surface water supply would cost close to $20 million.

Thomas says Halalt did not want to pursue legal action, but North Cowichan planned to go ahead with the project without further negotiation, according to a similar articlein the Cowichan News Leader. Halalt wants to protect water “quality and quantity” for everyone:

“What we are asking for is very simple – we want a comprehensive management plan for the watershed before this project goes ahead. And, if it goes ahead, we want to be full participants in a monitoring program,”  Thomas said. “But most importantly, we want a hand on the tap should it ever be seen that the wells are damaging this river, its fish or our drinking water supply.”

– Emily Linroth

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