This is the fourth in a series of stories exploring the Fraser River and the lands, waters and people connected to it. Future installments will dig into the vulnerable island refuges at the “Heart of the Fraser” and the international tangle over floodwaters that respect no boundaries.
The plight of wild salmon and the waters that support them can seem to be about very big things: vast river systems like British Columbia’s Fraser; salmon runs in the millions that collapse into thousands; the heavy political lifts involved in trying to curb net pen fish farms and stream-clogging logging and agriculture.
But it’s also about a lot of little, unassuming places: creeks and sloughs and flooded fields and braided side channels. It’s there, rather than in the deep, headlong main channels of rivers like the Fraser, that salmon and other fishes spawn, and there that young fish shelter, feed and grow.
One such humble waterway is Maple Creek, which threads through the cities of Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam about 16 miles east of Vancouver and then empties into the Coquitlam River, which a few miles later meets the mighty Fraser near the Trans-Canada Highway bridge. In Port Coquitlam, Maple Creek brushes the brambly elbow formed by two side streets lined with low-slung commercial and storage buildings. An asphalt pad there bears a demeaning-sounding official sign: “Place Ditch Debris Only Here.” Some stream-hugging wag added a second sign, since removed: “It’s Not a Ditch!” No slight intended, said Melony Burton, Port Coquitlam’s infrastructure planning manager: “We don’t even call our ditches ‘ditches.’ They’re waterways.”
The sign is there to direct workers clearing out a ditch, er, basin containing an ominous-looking assemblage of rusty steel grates and boxes. A long steel pipe and dangling corrugated hose emerge from the jumble. This is the pump-and-gate system installed in 1990 to control the creek’s flow and prevent flooding. The pump still functions, but the creek floods in a big storm. The outdated side-mounted floodgate opens only under heavy water pressure, so it usually blocks fish passage. The trash rack below clogs up, further blocking the way.
For all that, and despite water quality rated “fair to poor,” when the two Coquitlams embarked on their Maple Creek Watershed Management Plan in 2011 they found six salmonid species in the creek: spawning and rearing coho, chum and steelhead, and young, rearing sockeye, Chinook and cutthroat trout. That’s testimony not only to the persistence of these river-climbing fish but to the varied resources of the Fraser watershed, which, though battered, is likely still the world’s richest salmon stream system.
The Coquitlam River itself offers more testimony. It was the first B.C. river to be dammed, in 1905, before anyone worried about niceties like fish ladders. The coho that spawned in Coquitlam Lake could no longer reach it; sockeye trapped behind the dam could not reach the sea but survived as shrunken freshwater kokanee. That the river should lose its sockeye run seemed especially ironic; “Coquitlam” derives from Kwikwetlem, “red fish up the river,” the name adopted by the First Nation abiding along its floodplain.
Then, in 2005, dam operators released excess water and some kokanee escaped. In 2008, a full-blown sea-run sockeye returned and was captured and reverently released above the dam by the Kwikwetlem; nine more followed. The cycle of returns and escapes has continued, even grown to 115 escaping smolts, said Craig Orr, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University and advisor to the Kwikwetlem Nation. Coho transported above the dam have also survived and escaped.
Those hardy returnees are a vanishingly tiny share of the old runs, however — a story repeated all around the Fraser Valley. Salmon die a death of a thousand cut-offs in the contrivances that humans build to stifle the natural interplay between water and land — i.e., to prevent flooding. Those don’t stop with the sort of sticky, obsolete floodgates and lethal, obsolete pumps seen on Maple Creek. Undersized, clogged and high-set “perched” culverts hinder, even block, both fish and streamflows. Dikes and bulkheads deny fish the shallows and floodplains that are natural spawning and rearing grounds.
Not all fish suffer from the barriers, however. Invasive species such as bass, black crappie and pumpkinseed (often imported from back East by nostalgic anglers or game managers) thrive in warm, stagnant impounded waters. Unlike salmon, they don’t need to migrate.
Dikes, gates, culverts and pumps by the thousand
Further down the Coquitlam River lies Colony Farm, which originally provided fresh food and exercise for patients at the on-site mental hospital; the BC Holstein News hailed it as having “undoubtedly the finest herd of black and white cattle in the world.” Today it’s a popular regional park and beguiling pastoral. A menagerie of crossing signs warns drivers to watch out for rabbits, ducks and coyotes on the entryway. The old farm fields, now meadow and brush, spread like savannahs from the riverfront trails.
But those trails run atop high dikes walling off the river. As Lina Azeez, the Watershed Watch Salmon Society’s habitat programs director, showed me around on a drenched October day, two late-spawning chum circled and an otter stalked nearby. More salmon would come, she suggested, if they had access to the natural floodplain: “It’s a long-term project, but I’d like to see more connection between the river and the flood plain over here.”
But across the valley, such connection is the exception. Last year, in the open-access journal Ecosphere, scientists at the University of British Columbia published what lead author Riley Finn told me is the first “salmon-specific” effort to tally waterway habitat loss across the Lower Fraser Valley. He and his colleagues calculate that diking has cut off about 85% of the floodplain historically accessible to fish. Using Indigenous and pioneer accounts and mapping and modeling to establish baselines, they identified 1,070 miles of streams in the region that have been wiped off the map by barriers and undergrounding. They found that 64% of the remaining stream courses are blocked by some 1,200 floodgates, culverts, dams and other barriers.
All this leaves out additional habitat likely lost in the Fraser estuary. “We didn’t do a great job there,” admits Finn. “There’s a lack of reliable data.” Estuary impacts especially hurt young Chinook, which linger there as they adapt to salt water. Young coho and river-run Chinook, which overwinter before heading to sea, especially suffer from the loss of floodplain refuges — all the worse because returning Fraser Chinook are vital to the Salish Sea’s endangered orcas.
Bad news comes in big numbers, good news comes in many small packages
The list is long, but one by one municipalities, assisted by federal and provincial grants and prodded by wide-frame conservation groups, hyperlocal streamwatch societies and First Nations, are starting to fix the cut-offs. Improved water-management technologies and techniques, often developed in the dike-seasoned Netherlands, also help. Nifty animations from the conservation group Resilient Waters show how various types of fish-friendly and unfriendly hardware operate.
Big shoreline projects like bridges inevitably affect fish habitat, but they can pay dividends in small but valuable improvements. Take the 10-lane Port Mann Bridge connecting Surrey and Coquitlam, one of the world’s widest bridges. “When they replaced it,” said Orr, “they also replaced 17 culverts along [Trans-Canada] Highway 1. The new ones are two meters wide. The old ones were just a meter or so,” and often blocked or dilapidated. Kwikletlem members are testing other culverts by tagging young salmon with transponders and tracking to see if they get through.
At Colony Farm, Azeez showed me an upgraded tidal gate that stays open by default so fish can pass, and a pump that shoots fish through, unmashed. Port Coquitlam is on the way to replacing its fish-mashing pump station on Maple Creek with a fish-friendly Archimedes pump: salmon will spiral around a reversing diagonal screw and swim out the top. The concept, first described by its namesake Greek scientist, dates back more than 2,400 years, perhaps to ancient Egypt; the idea of using it to safely transport fish is new. Coming soon to your neighborhood water park?
Port Coquitlam’s Burton says the pump upgrade has a triple goal: to protect fish, ensure flood protection (which the old rig hasn’t lately done) and “make sure we’re sizing adequately for climate change, which will mean heavier rainfall.” At $3.5 million (Canadian), “it’s a really expensive project for a municipality with just 68,000 people.” And, she said, Port Coquitlam will also replace the unfriendly pump on another salmon stream, Hyde Creek.
Some salmon advocates question the city’s glacial pace in completing and implementing the watershed management plan, first initiated a decade ago, from which these projects emerged. “I find that frustrating and disappointing,” countered Burton. “We’re taking on two fish-friendly mega-projects in five years” (aided by federal and provincial grants, of course). Such solicitude would have been unthinkable when she entered the field 17 years ago: “Drainage used to be just flood protection, moving water away from streets, homes and businesses as fast as you can. It’s a paradigm shift.”
It depends whose dike gets breached
The going gets tougher when fish-friendly fixes are contentious, costly, or both. Breaching dikes is even more contentious if residences, not just farmland, lie nearby — even when, as Azeez contended at Colony Farm, they wouldn’t be threatened with flooding. The homes east of the Coquitlam River do indeed appear to be safely perched above the former floodplain. But Coquitlam infrastructure director Jonathan Helmus spoke guardedly: “We’re taking a controlled look at more open movement [i.e., breaching] while making sure we don’t compromise public safety…. Breaching dykes is a big thing for the First Nations who live along the river. If they get flooded, there’s no way to get to them except by boat or helicopter.”
Indeed, the Kwikletem Nation has joined with the city to seek to raise about three miles of dike on the river’s west side, where a flood-prone section of its reserve lands lies. At the same time, said Orr, it’s looking at breaching other dikes to the east, along the larger Pitt River, to restore unpopulated marshland. Managing dynamic waterways can be a delicate balance.
In the nearby town of Pitt Meadows, the resident Katzie First Nation would like to make the long slough that bears its name more dynamic. Rick Bailey, the Katzie Nation councillor overseeing fish, wildlife, and aboriginal title and treaty rights, fondly remembers catching trout, hunting ducks and trapping muskrat on Katzie Slough as a kid. “When you go there today,” he sighed, “my favorite fishing spot is either dry or an ugly, stagnant mess.”
He and Azeez recounted a slew of troubles there on a recent visit: agricultural runoff raises nitrate and coliform levels, invasive parrot feather and canary reed grass grow so thick that the push-off point for an awareness-raising pancake breakfast and canoe paddle had to be moved, and the surrounding wapato (Indian potato) fields, once a staple and lucrative trade crop for the Katzie, are too tainted with heavy metals for harvesting. As I stood atop the looming, fish-mashing Kennedy Road Pump Station, near the slough’s intersection with the wide Pitt River, the greenish water shooting out smelled sweet like apple cider, then reeked of nitrates, then suggested rotting mulch.
Many in the area would like to better reconnect the degraded slough to tidal creeks and the Pitt River, refreshing its waters and perhaps even restoring its salmon runs. (Just a handful of coho and Chinook were counted there nine and 11 years ago.) But when Pitt Meadows (civic slogan, “The Natural Place”) set out in 2020 to replace the Kennedy Station’s antiquated flood pumps, it opted against a fish-friendly design. Watershed Watch filed a brief opposing (so far successfully) provincial and federal funding for the project unless it were reconfigured to protect fish. The showdown shows how complicated things can get when fish, water and public finances collide.
The city argued that the slough was too far gone to be worth preserving as a salmon stream, and that fish-friendly pumps would illegally release the usual invasive fishes into other waterways. Watershed Watch, represented by Ecojustice Canada, countered that pumpkinseed and company were already in those waterways, making the point moot. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans concurred, declaring that release would not break the ban “if the same nonindigenous fish species are present upstream and downstream of the proposed pump station.”
Watershed Watch also noted that the city invalidated its own argument when it chose to replace another Katzie Slough station, the Pitt Polder, with fish-friendly pumps. In a letter rebutting the various charges, Samantha Maki, the city’s engineering and operations director, tried to argue this was for ecological reasons: the Pitt Polder end of the slough has “somewhat” better water, therefore deserves fish protection. “While not insignificant to a small community like Pitt Meadows,” she wrote, “the higher cost of fish-friendly pumps was not the over-riding consideration in decision-making, but was one of many factors taken into account.”
Look more closely, however, and it’s hard not to see cost as the decisive factor, here and for other communities that resist or delay getting rid of their fish-mashers. Fish-friendly pumps cost more and aren’t available locally, which may cause delays and oblige officials to stockpile parts and spares.
How much more? Azeez thinks 10% is a good rule of thumb, “but it really depends what you do.” That sounds about right if you’re replacing an entire pump station, as Pitt Meadows did at Pitt Polder for what Maki reported was “almost $10 million,” including “significant dike upgrades”: the pumps themselves are a smaller share of the whole project.
At Kennedy Road, however, going fish friendly would, she contended, double the cost of new pumps, to about $1.2 million. Without costing it out, Burton estimates that Port Coquitlam’s new $3.5 million pump station might cost just $2 to 2.5 million if it weren’t fish-friendly.
Multiply such differences hundreds of times over and you’re talking real money, even before you get into the bigger issues involved with dikes. But how do you value salmon runs that, through thousands of generations of evolution, have adapted exquisitely, perhaps irreplaceably, to their chosen streams?
- Part 1: Not the Columbia
- Part 2: The flood and building back better
- Part 3: Saving wild salmon versus the net pen industry
- Part 5: The bleeding Heart of the Fraser
— Reported by Eric Scigliano
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