Anne Murray: Agricultural land faces accelerating threats in Delta
Vancouverites have an increased interest in purchasing artisanal, B.C.-grown fruit, vegetables, and other agricultural products, as evidenced by the strong performance of farmers markets and the proliferation of websites on sourcing fresh, healthy, local food. It is paradoxical, therefore, that yet another attempted land grab by developers would concrete over some of the best food-producing land in the province.
Investigations by independent MLA Vicki Huntington have revealed that options worth $98 million have been signed on 11 productive farm parcels within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), located near Highway 17 and Deltaport Way in South Delta. The intention is to build a giant logistics park and intermodal yard in connection with Port Metro Vancouver’s Deltaport and the Canada Pacific Gateway Program. The fields in question are adjacent to farmland purchased by B.C. Rail in 2009, and other land parcels alienated by the new South Fraser Perimeter Road. They are also close to Tsawwassen First Nation treaty lands, some of which are slated for industrial and commercial development. In addition, the Gilmore Farms and two other ALR parcels in Richmond have been acquired by Port Metro Vancouver for future industrial purposes.
The accumulative loss of Lower Mainland agricultural land is becoming critical, and a tipping point has been reached. The Gateway Program, the driving force behind much of the speculation, is threatening to destroy the viability of the ALR in the Fraser delta—land which, furthermore, serves dual purpose as internationally-important migratory bird habitat. While the optioned farmland is ostensibly protected under the ALR, and development would normally be subject to review by the Agricultural Land Commission, this would apparently not be the case for projects sponsored by Port Metro Vancouver, as the port is a federal government entity and not bound by regional and provincial laws.
The Fraser delta is special for many reasons. Agricultural land in the delta is among the most productive in Canada, due to fertile, level soils, a mild climate, and long hours of sunshine. There is less than five percent arable land in our mountainous province. The environment of the delta is also highly valuable, a fact frequently ignored by developers. The low-lying, wet, and marshy delta is a hot spot for birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway, and the farm fields are intensively used by ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds, and raptors. The delta is one of the most important stop-overs on the west coast of the Americas, classified as such under many international designations. As articulated in the classic, definitive study by the Canadian Wildlife Service, “The Birds of the Fraser River Estuary”, the demise of the Fraser delta’s ecosystems could affect birds from 20 countries, on three continents, from Russia to Argentina. The area proposed for Gateway developments is habitat for these migratory birds. Since that study was conducted, the ecological importance of the farmland has become even better understood and the loss of fields ever more rapid.
There are many risks associated with converting delta farmland to port, transportation, and commercial uses. Besides its importance for home-grown food and migratory birds, the rural landscape helps support the Fraser river’s salmon, sturgeon, and other fish and all the associated employment opportunities. Industrialization brings greatly increased truck traffic, risks to health from poor air quality, and impacts from noise and light pollution on people and ecosystems. Bringing more people to work and live on this low-lying land would increase the safety and financial risks associated with rising sea levels, floods, and earthquakes. No full, cumulative, environmental review has ever been done on the overall effect of the planned transformation from agriculture to industrial purposes, nor has a credible, comprehensive analysis of the cost, risk, or benefit to society of the overall Gateway Program been made available.
This is not the first time Delta’s farmland has been the subject of intense speculation. In the late 1960s, 4,000 acres of farmland, the Roberts Bank back-up lands, were expropriated for future port uses. For the next three decades, short-term leases precluded necessary investments in the soil and farm infrastructure. The local agricultural industry started to wane. The building of the George Massey Tunnel encouraged housing developments south of the Fraser River, while, despite the creation of the ALR in the 1970s, much of the neighbouring community of Richmond was converted to housing. In 1988, concerns about the future of farming in B.C. were exacerbated by an order-in-council that allowed golf courses as an outright use in the ALR, with a wave of controversial proposals around Boundary Bay in Delta. This became a key issue in the ensuing provincial election, when the Socreds were thrown out of office by the NDP. Pressure by the Boundary Bay Conservation Committee led to studies of Delta’s farmland and environment, resulting in many positive outcomes, including the eventual resale of some of the Roberts Bank back-up lands to local farmers. In the ultimate irony, Delta farmland is now again being optioned for port uses.
While individual farmers may struggle in today’s economy, their cause is not well-served by destabilization and fragmentation of the land base. Farming has a long and successful tradition in the delta and could yet capitalize on the demand for safe, healthy, locally-grown food. Farmers built the original dikes that created Delta’s farmland and many have cooperated with, or tolerated, the maintenance of bird and wildlife habitats. Open-field agriculture can coexist with migratory bird flocks. Development on the scale proposed under the Gateway Program will not support birds; the flyway will collapse. There is nowhere for these birds to go, as we are surrounded by urban development, snow-capped mountains, and B.C.’s predominantly rocky coastline.
The industrial-corporate juggernaut of the Gateway Program, strongly supported by federal and provincial governments through our tax dollars, should be rethought. Its current course is destroying scarce farmlands and ecosystems upon which life depends. We cannot afford to lose one more acre of farmland in Delta.
Anne Murray is a writer and naturalist, and the author of two books on the Fraser River delta—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores and from Nature Guides B.C.