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Englishman River an important waterway for fish, people, environment

The Englishman River watershed is in good shape but more volunteers are needed to keep improving it.

That was the message of an evening of talks organized by the Mid Vancouver Island Habitat Enhancement Society (MVIHES) Tuesday at the Parksville Community and Conference Centre.

"If you want to know about the health of a river look at the fish stocks," said the first of three speakers, fisheries biologist David Clough who's extensive report on the river's habitat status was just released.

The evening's MC, MVIHES project coordinator Faye Smith, previously explained to The NEWS that 100 years ago the area was logged right to the banks of the river.

In 2001, the Englishman River was the first watershed in the province to get a recovery plan, with funding from the $30 million Pacific Salmon Endowment Fund.

The endowment fund paid for a lot of assessment and recovery work until 2006, with MVIHES acting as committee chair, but since then it has been done on a volunteer basis with whatever funds the committee could scrape together, Smith said.

They developed specific projects focusing on small manageable areas like tributary Centre Creek where they had a lot of success and are now moving on to Shelly Creek.

"What we're doing now is reacting to the severe cuts to fisheries," Smith said. "Not only has funding gone from fisheries and oceans and positions lost and shifted around, but weakened environmental regulation has meant that our watersheds are possibly at risk."

Clough spoke to the success of the recovery plan in bringing fish back to the watershed.

A chart in his report shows chinook increasing from seven counted in the early 1980s to over 1,400 in 2010-11. Chum increased from 1,800 to 23,000, coho from 660 to 5,300 and pink from 15 to 3,500 while only sockeye have remained flat or decreased.

Clough was followed by hydrologist Gilles Wendling with an update on extensive work mapping the region's ground and surface water interaction.

"All of this information is online," he said of his extensive charts and graphs, adding "it is benefiting people around the world," as shown by people accessing the data from all over.

Wendling has mapped 12 distinct aquifers and produced a lot of information about how they interact — or don't — with each other, streams and wells, which is all important for things like well water safety and the work starting on a new river water intake and treatment facility.

"On a global scale the Englishman River is considered one of the most important of this kind of ecology," Clough said.

To that end, the second half of the evening was an update from Englishman River and Arrowsmith Water Service program manager Mike Squire.

He explained the water service history starting with the building of the Arrowsmith Dam in the late 1990s, with half of the water storage being used for fisheries purposes to help increase flows in the dry summer months.

The original plan was to build a new water intake around now and a treatment facility ten years later but new Vancouver Island Health Authority requirements to treat all surface water by 2016 led to phases two and three being done at the same time.

With the Parksville area population expected to exceed the current water supply by 2022 at the latest, and a "worrisome trend" of declining well field water levels, the water service is also looking at ways to increase the supply during the summer.

"It's not a supply issue but a management issue," Squire said, explaining there is plenty of water in the region, with enough water coming down the river on a single peak day to supply the population for an entire year, but most of the water comes in the winter when the demand is lowest.

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