Recent rainfall is a small blessing for Campbell River system

Still concern for emerging salmon fry due to dry conditions

Just as the bad news arrived about near record-low water levels, along came a couple sou-easters.

This week’s precipitation is much needed for the Campbell River watershed, but the prolonged dry weather is still cause for great concern at BC Hydro and for fish technicians at the Quinsam Hatchery.

“With extremely low inflows since October, it has been a challenge to maintain a minimum flow in the river to allow the adults to spawn and eggs to develop in the gravel,” said hatchery manager Dave Ewart in a news release from BC Hydro. “At this point, we are all waiting for rain and snow.”

As if on command, this week’s rain slightly boosted levels in the watershed and reservoirs, and also increased the snowpack on mountains.

In fact, Mt. Washington Alpine Resort was finally able to re-open Thursday and was reporting a mid-mountain snow base of 120 centimetres on Wednesday morning. The ski resort, which typically boasts one of the deepest snowpacks, had been closed due to a lack of snow.

Since Oct. 9, the water inflows into the John Hart reservoir in Campbell River is the second lowest (1978-1979 was lower) ever seen in 50 years since BC Hydro began record-keeping.

“Since October, we have only received about 47 per cent of normal water inflows into the reservoir from storm run-off and snowmelt,” said hydro spokesman Stephen Watson.

As a result, BC Hydro has been operating the John Hart generating station at half capacity for months to conserve water for downstream fish habitat. This operating range will likely stay in place for several months.

The low output at all Vancouver Island hydroelectric facilities has meant more power coming from the mainland by undersea transmission cables to meet demand.

In spite of the low water flows, BC Hydro will begin releasing “spawning pulse flows” from the John Hart Dam.

The goal is to release more water into the Elk Falls Canyon and Campbell River to allow for the migration of steelhead.

There will be five, two-day periods of increased water flows beginning Feb. 18-19 and continuing until March 19. A public safety advisory is in place from John Hart Dam to Elk Falls during the migration flows, so stay away from the river at this location during the migration flows. Safety signs will also be in place.

Meanwhile, at the Quinsam Hatchery, staff are keeping a close watch on their stocks. According to Ewart, most salmon fry will emerge in April.

“On the one hand, these low-flow and cold conditions provide optimum in-river incubation survival, but on the other, there is real concern week to week on whether these flows can be maintained into the spring to allow for fry to emerge from the gravel and rear throughout the spring,” he said. “Staff are also concerned about the year to come and what the low snowpack and inflow conditions will mean for all stages of the salmon life cycle in the seasons to come.”

The current weather forecast shows rain for most days until late February.


Fast facts:


  • The minimum fish habitat flow down Elk Falls Canyon is four metres per cubic second (m3/s). For the migration pulse flows it will be increased to 10 m3/s. Out of consideration for public safety, BC Hydro will increase the water discharge from the dam on Monday nights. The highest public safety risk is when water flows are increasing.
  • Due to low water levels, on Dec. 23, BC Hydro opened up the Salmon River Diversion and began diverting up to a maximum of 5 m3/s into the Lower Campbell Reservoir. However, on some days no water has been diverted given low water conditions and by providing downstream river fish flows in the Salmon River.
  • So far the concrete canal, that needs modest repairs, has been holding up and is being inspected regularly. Since Dec. 23, the total water diverted from the Salmon River is the equivalent of 0.3 of a metre in water storage in the Lower Campbell Reservoir/McIvor Lake.
  • BC Hydro is currently diverting only about one m3/s from the Quinsam River Diversion into the Lower Campbell Reservoir. Since Nov. 19, the total water diverted from the Quinsam River is the equivalent of 0.4 of a metre in water storage in the Lower Campbell Reservoir/McIvor Lake.
  • The Upper Campbell Reservoir/Buttle Lake had been hovering near the 216 metre level for much of December and early January, but it has declined to the current level of 214.50 metres. This is about 3.5 metres below normal for this time of year.
  • The Lower Campbell Reservoir is currently at 177.55 metres, and is up about 2.5 metres from its low in December and January. It is about 0.3 metres below normal for this time of year. BC Hydro is filling this reservoir because of planned maintenance work and the subsequent lowering to normal levels once the work is complete.
  • The February snow bulletin shows the snowpack to be 28 per cent of normal for this time of year. The Upper Wolf River snow gauge in the upper watershed has been trending near record lows all fall/winter and is currently at about 25 per cent of normal. The snowpack normally peaks in May so there’s still time for accumulation.