It’s all connected: A Quw’utsun watershed story

Jared Qwustenuxun Williams shares an Indigenous perspective on Cowichan land, trees and water.
The shadow of a mountain, with sunset skies behind it in the background of the photo. In the foreground is the Cowichan estuary with blue water reflecting the line of trees along it. A photo of the watershed in its entirety.
Swuq’us overlooking the estuary. Showing not only the full length of the watershed, but also its deep cultural roots. Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams/The Discourse

Jared Qwustenuxun Williams is a Coast Salish food sovereignty advocate, a cultural educator and a contributing writer for The Discourse. There is a glossary of Hul’qumi’num words at the bottom of this article.

What is a watershed? 

I remember asking this question back when I was 17 years old. It was the year 2000 and I had just been hired on for the environmental youth team at Cowichan Tribes. We went on this camping retreat for the first week, and we all learned about the different jobs the e-teams (environmental teams) would be doing. Our team at Cowichan focused on water. The team was made up of five youth, each with their own specialty –  mine was urban runoff. There were also other topics like agricultural runoff, septic systems, and forestry, but we all learned about how the water came from the watershed.

We learned how a watershed was a vast range of land – the inner valley of several combined mountain ranges, a place where all the water from the surrounding land ran into a single river or lake. This concept was hard for me to immediately comprehend in my youth, but rings so much clearer now. The long and skinny of it being that a watershed is a great big catch basin for rainfall.

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A forest filters the watershed

But what has become more apparent over the years is how everything the water touches in the watershed affects the quality of water. Water that runs over a farm, a clear cut, or a parking lot will all affect the ecosystem differently than water from a forest or meadow. It’s not a great leap of intellect to realize that whatever we spray upon the ground will inevitably run off and enter the water system. I learned, during my time with the e-team, that a single litre of oil can contaminate one million litres of water. It’s almost incomprehensible how much damage we can do with so little effort.

As I continued on my watershed learning journey through life I could see how forestry is interconnected to the whole watershed system. The Elders around me my whole life talked of a time when the Cowichan river wouldn’t fluctuate as it does now, from summer lows to winter highs. The river in their stories, for the most part, had a steady flow all year round. This puzzled me as I grew because every year I’d see the rains come and the river rise again, seemingly higher every year. 

Read also: As another round of logging wraps up in Nanaimo’s watershed, advocates say it’s time for longterm solutions

It wasn’t until I sat with an Elder in my family who talked about moss and mountain forests that things began to come together. They talked about how the moss and leaf litter were massive hectare-size sponges sucking up the rainfall. This was so fascinating that I left that conversation hungry for more. I quickly found that trees do basically the same thing. Trees are full of veins and waterways that suck water up from the ground. In the summer, the water in the trees depletes and in the winter, they replenish themselves. I even learned how tree roots help rainfall reach the aquifers deep within the earth, helping them recharge in the wet season.

Photo taken from creek-level, and the creek is seen winding through rocks and surrounded by trees.
One of the many creeks that carve its way down from the mountains around the Cowichan Valley. Most of the mountain creeks support thriving ecosystems and help keep the water cool, many are still culturally active. Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams/The Discourse

The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that, in yesteryear the Cowichan river didn’t rise with the rains because the mountain, forest and animals all took their share of the water before it even reached the river. 

My father said it best. He said that when he was young, it had to rain for weeks to make the river rise a little. Now, a few hours after a big rainstorm, the river is flooded. This brought me to the chilling conclusion that the lack of proper forestry management upriver in the mountains had depleted the forest, the moss and the animals to a point where the rainfall is landing on barren rock or earth and barreling down the slopes, gathering silt and gravel before rushing into the swelling river. With less and less nature to act as a sponge, the watershed is being turned from a slow system that released its water gradually, to a great big rain catch sending torrents down to the sea in a matter of days. This is a part of what is causing the flooding in the valley below. The massive forest filter that once cleaned, held and slowly released all the water has been damaged enough that its dysfunction is showing.

Redirecting watershed flows

Not to mention the changing of the river. For countless generations the river was a living, breathing, moving giant that roamed its way across the Quw’utsun valley. Nothing could hold the river back once it reached the silty gravel at the valley bottom. The Quw’utsun Sta’lo’ shifted and moved with the rains and the sediment undulating like a serpent across the landscape. While the many waterfalls and rocky pools up near the lake held the water in place, the curves of the lower river deposited sediment on its corners, creating a good spawning ground for salmon. Adding to that was the many tributaries that fed into the river. 

Read also: ‘Critical edge’: A community effort to bring S’amunu salmon back from the brink

There was even a once great creek that connected the Quw’utsun and Xwulqw’selu rivers. This creek was called Sh-hwuykwselu, which translates to Busy Place Creek, named on account of how well travelled it was. Elders talk of how the landscape was covered in dry creeks that would burst to life in the rain. They would talk of other creeks that would flow all year, some from the mountains and others from springs where water comes from deep underground. Many Elders can still tell you where to get clean drinking water from a spring, but many can also tell you where a spring was covered by development. The tributaries and creeks were a great source of flood protection, because when the water levels rose so did the tributaries and creeks. For the hwulmuhw people living in this world, it would be easy to create a mental map of what flooded and and avoid building in that area, or build on stilts.

A riverbank in the bottom right corner of the photo, part of the Cowichan watershed. Black and white dog stands at the edge of the river. The river itself is green and still, reflecting trees on the opposite bank, on the left and in the top half of the photo.
The river itself carves its way through the stone creating deep holes that help cool the water and create habitat for spawning salmon moving up the river in the summer months. Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams/The Discourse

Sometimes our shared history is as hard to write as it is to read. But, most of you know where this story goes. Sh-hwuykwselu, what was once a well traveled canoe passage corridor, was filled in. For anyone who knows Duncan, it once ran from the Quw’utsun Sta’lo’, at or near the Allenby Road cabins, to the Xwulqw’selu Sta’lo’, at or near Trestle Road. This passage, which was used for transporting people and goods for thousands of years, was filled in and topped with an industrial park. Other tributaries also mostly got filled in. Elders talk of a creek that ran in where the Black Bridge is now, but that’s just one example on a list of dozens of creeks that were filled in the name of development. 

Read also: Communities come together to clean the Quw’utsun Sta’lo’ (Cowichan River)

With many creeks and tributaries cut off, the Quw’utsun river was then dyked to run nearly straight through Duncan. Water is not meant to go straight, it wants to bend and meander. When it goes straight, it goes too fast, gets too hot and builds up sediment at a much faster rate. So when it finally reaches the estuary, it’s moving much too quickly and depositing too much sediment. This is one of many reasons why sediment is building up in the lower river system, sediment that has to be removed or the river will fill the lower delta with gravel and the salmon will not be able to return.

Where the river meets the sea

Finally, we get to the sea. The Quw’utsun and Xwulqw’selu rivers come togeather to form one estuary as they feed their nutrient rich waters to the ocean. I’ve been told glossy-eyed stories of the crabs in the Quw’utsun estuary. There were so many they could be raked in the dozens without harming the population. They were also enormous enough that one was often enough to feed a person and apparently had a completely different flavor. Some were even yellow-ish in colour. 

A view of Cowichan Bay and the watershed as seen from atop a mountain. Blue water on the left meets green land and a river is seen flowing into the land. Hills are in the background.
The view of Cowichan Bay from Pi’paam. Looking down from our sacred mountain you can see the massive sand bar that once produced shellfish and crabs for all Quw’utsun mustimuhw. Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams/The Discourse

There are powerful stories shared by some Elders that can still remember clam digging in Cowichan Bay. They talk of the sandbar filled with shellfish and how they would go out at the lowest tide, even if it was at night. People talk about lanterns all up and down the beach and feasts that would last until sunrise. But, for my generation, it appears that the crab bounty is all but gone or much smaller and more infrequent. The shoreline is not much different. What sparse shellfish are on the sand and silt are all contaminated and inedible. A place of endless bounty has become a reminder of times past for those who know the stories.

All of this is connected to watershed management, from the trees in the mountain to the gravel in the estuary. Hwulmuhw people have worked for generations to ensure the natural ecosystem could thrive around them. We live in what was once a great rainforest that caught and processed every drop of rain. From the spe’uth (bear) and the spaal’ (Raven) to the eyx (crab) and qul-lhanumutsun (killer whale), every creature benefits and is impacted by the watershed. In the end, a watershed is something to be protected, not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of the creatures we share this planet with, who can’t just filter their water.

Hul’qumi’num Glossary

Hwulmuhw – Indigenous person

Mustimuhw – People

Pi’paam – Mount Tzouhalem

Qul-lhanumutsun – Killer whale

Quw’utsun – Cowichan

Sh-hwuykwselu – Busy Place Creek

Spaal’  – Raven

Spe’uth – Bear

Sta’lo’- River

Swuq’us – Mount Prevost

Xwulqw’selu – Koksilah

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