Measuring the true value of healthy water and fish
“The best time to plant a tree was thirty years ago. The next best time is now.” - Anonymous
On September 27, 2012, a resident in the vicinity of Musqueam Creek—Vancouver’s last remaining wild coho salmon stream—was having trouble with the water discharge from their backyard swimming pool. It was correctly hooked up to the grey-water system but some problem had caused an overflow into their house. So they ran the chlorinated, bleach-laden water into the closest storm sewer. This then emptied into the creek, killing at least 1,000 spine stickleback, Coho salmon, and rainbow trout. A few of the fish were returning adult spawners and their bodies exploded with the toxins.
Musqueam Band members who volunteer as stewards for the creek were very upset by the spill. The thousands of hours of effort that go into the ongoing management of this urban creek were wiped out in minutes. Willard Sparrow, one of the regular volunteers commented: “It kind of felt like somebody burnt my church down. That’s how important this system is to me. It’s culturally who I am.”
Richard Sparrow, manager of the Musqueam fisheries, said that unfortunately incidents like this are more common than people think. Indeed, it not the first time Musqueam Creek—which is classed as endangered—has suffered severe harmful impacts from human activities. Not only have discharges from swimming pools always been a problem but parts of the creek are downstream from three golf courses. Decades before, the land around the stream had been used to dump all kinds of human-made toxins. Sometime they still bubble up through the soil today like a long-lost mystery. And in the late 1990s a car hit a fire hydrant at the corner of Musqueam Park which pumped out high pressure water, flushing surface soils into the creek and choking it. The force of the water also washed away recent plantings.
The Lower Mainland used to be home to a remarkably rich temperate rainforest of salmon and trees. Hundreds of streams, short and long, supported generous populations of chum, coho, and steelhead salmon and cutthroat trout. The Fraser River ran thick with sockeye and pink salmon heading further upstream to their native creeks. Massive old-growth trees were fed by heavy precipitation and nitrogen from the bones of fish carried deep into the woods by bears and wolves. The salmon were part of an energy cycling system that fed over 130 animal species and supported the Coast Salish First Nations peoples for millennia. Before settlers arrived, the estuary of the Fraser River was one of the most biodiverse and wealthy ecosystems on Earth.
Most of this once abundant natural capital was rapidly depleted in less than a hundred years—loaded off to local sawmills and fish canneries in the blink of an evolutionary eye. And yet some salmon streams still remain today. Just like at Musqueam Creek, there are streamkeeper groups who clean up the water and surrounding ecosystems and monitor their health, sometimes stocking hatcheries at the headwaters and replanting vegetation along the banks. They also educate the neighbourhood about the inherent value of a wild stream and that “all drains lead to fish”.
There are some remarkably dedicated and creative people who contribute. In 1998 a dump of toxic chemicals into a storm drain upstream from Byrne Creek in South Burnaby which killed 5,000 fish caught the attention of local resident Louise Towell. She and her partner Joan Carne went on to become partners in creating the Stream of Dreams Mural Society. The mandate they took on themselves was to teach schoolchildren about watersheds and the group they founded has been going strong ever since. Today there are over 130,000 brightly coloured wooden fish painted by schoolchildren whose personal artwork is mounted on chain-link fences surrounding their schools. Each fish is the personal painting of a child, teacher, or staff in the school who has been taught the preciousness of wild salmon and streams.
Many of us have seen the yellow fish painted by streamkeepers and other volunteer groups next to some storm drains to remind people that these lead to fish-bearing habitat. All these people work hard—mostly as volunteers. They undertake this important work caring for local ecosystems we all share for no other reason than they believe passionately that salmon and other wildlife should have healthy places to live too. Still, coverage provided by this vital education is spotty because it is up to citizen volunteers or charities with ever decreasing budgets.
Should we simply shrug and blame human ignorance when precious plant and animal life vanishes in incidents like at Musqueam Creek? There was no malicious intent, after all. Or is there perhaps something bigger going on here? It’s hard to estimate exactly how many urban residents clearly do not know the harm that comes from flushing toxins down a street drain. Regardless a 1,000 strong fish kill and the wiping out of years of effort of many dedicated volunteers is a very big price to pay for the actions of one resident.
What this recent incident once again highlights is that the issue of protection of our local waters is not the number one priority of any level of government, nor is it top of mind for executives leading our most successful business corporations. Neither is motivated to treat the health of a natural system with the seriousness with which they respond to threats to human health. Fish and waterways do not vote in elections, pay taxes, or take their consumer dollars to the mall. They and their habitat are consistently undervalued and not considered important stakeholders in our human society. We seem to have “bigger fish to fry”!
When residents have no idea that they will poison vulnerable fish by using common storm sewers as a waste water system, this shows the terrible disconnect our society has when it comes to recognizing the importance and fragility of local waterways. Our governments know well enough to have made it mandatory to connect a pool outflow system to grey-water treatment (and we probably learned this through trial and error which caused far too many fish kills in the past). But beyond that some people still fail to make the connection between the heavy-handed chemicals that kill pesky germs for humans and those which pose a grave threat to the communities of living creatures that are still trying to survive in water on the other side of the sewer.
Creeks, rivers, lakes, and oceans are still too widely seen as common flush-away zones for anything our society wants to get rid of. We really don’t know what is secretly discharged into our common waters. We hardly monitor toxic runoff from vehicle traffic nor do we install sufficient effective natural filtration near street sewers. Byrne Creek has been plagued by a few more disastrous chemical spills since Stream of Dreams started their programs. Port Coquitlam just prosecuted someone for pouring cement down a street drain. Clearly there is lots more work to done.
How many people today can identify their local watershed? (Yes, everyone and everything on Earth lives in a watershed!) Do people know what kind of stewardship activities are happening there? What does our government do to help care for our water systems? Recently the federal government gutted the Fisheries Act and weakened the protection of the Navigable Water Act. This doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in their intentions to care for water or fish.
Salmon and waterways are remarkably resilient. This fall chum salmon returned to Still Creek for the first time in over seven decades. Still Creek is another of Vancouver’s original salmon streams and for years it was one of the most polluted water systems in the Lower Mainland. Its waters contained industrial toxins, runoff, and raw sewage. A combination of tougher environmental standards, appropriate sewage treatment, support from the cities of Vancouver, Burnaby, and various departments at BCIT and untold hours of work by dedicated volunteers have finally turned Still Creek into a living system again.
David Brower, the founder of Sierra Club, once said that environmentalists made meddlesome neighbours but excellent ancestors. Which raises the question: shouldn’t we all become like environmentalists and make future generations proud? We know that our remaining streams and surrounding waterways can recover and nourish more life if we take much better care of them. The time to expand and support the protection, enhancement, and stewardship of these valuable spawning streams is now. As well we should ensure to minimize any further pollution of the surrounding rivers and oceans. Our children and grandchildren will certainly thank us if we all become more knowledgeable and vigilant fighters for our local water systems and their resident life in whatever way we can.