Celia Brauer: The recovery of False Creek will take time and effort from all of us

By Celia Brauer

Did you know that False Creek— our beloved local inland waterway—was once frowned on by William Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway? He called it “a great nuisance” and in 1897 said, “I think eventually a sewer will be built right down the centre and the rest filled up.” Did you also know that for centuries before Van Horne spoke those scornful words, the shoreline of False Creek was lined with seafood? Local First Nations who had lived there for thousands of years said: “When the tide is out, the table is set.” They, along with whales, seals, and sturgeon took advantage of the rich food sources and calm waters. Thousands of migratory birds and countless writhing bodies of returning salmon contributed to its bounty.

But, by the middle 19th century, the plentiful rich resources of timber and fish proved highly tempting for the newcomers from overseas. They rapidly depleted the area without regard to its finiteness. What followed was a fast-forward of Canada’s settler history: from pristine wilderness to mills and human settlements. From abandoned and polluted industrial wasteland to the global village of condos, roads, and shops.

In the first 50 years of initial settlement in the city of Vancouver, all the old-growth trees were logged, the fish-bearing streams were buried and resident First Nations were relocated. The eastern half of the large tidal flat from Main Street to Clark Drive was filled by 1916. Every day the pulp mills were working, liquid waste products were unceremoniously dumped into the water and black smoke filled the air. If there was any environmental awareness at the time, it was hoped the tides and the winds would flush the wastes away. But the waters of False Creek did not move fast enough to move this toxic sludge anywhere but down into the murky depths of the water itself. The ground and air around these sites soaked up the rest. To add insult to injury, the combined sewers that were built during settlement dumped sewage directly into the creek when it rained heavily—a situation which continues until today.

To the False Creek Watershed Society, this is a sad start to what could be an extraordinary story of the recovery of a damaged ecosystem into a beautiful, naturally productive waterway that is the prize of the city. In fact, recovery has been underway quietly for some time. By the 1970s, most mills had closed and False Creek South was developed for housing. From the 1980s onward, the north side became a forest of high-rise apartment buildings. Throughout these years, the first efforts at cleaning up the creek were started and new habitat was created with limited success. This is partly because development has reshaped most of the shoreline as a seawall with virtually no habitat value, limiting the creek’s ability to support natural plants, fish, birds, seals, and the like. Now the last installment of reclamation in Southeast False Creek is due to be ready for the 2010 Winter Olympics. And one final spot where you can touch the earth—the old False Creek flats to the east—is slated for more human development needs.

Despite this state of affairs, some wildlife has returned. The waters and parks of False Creek are increasingly home to many shore and seabirds such as cormorants, ducks, herons, kingfishers, owls, geese, crows, and gulls. An occasional seal’s head can be spotted bobbing in the waters. There are mussels lining the seawall and some starfish clinging to the rocks. There are rumours that herring live there, and schools of salmon fry have been spotted.

But False Creek still has a long way to go to receive a clean bill of health. Its waters remain toxic, as untreated industrial wastes are not generally reabsorbed successfully into a seawater ecosystem. Deep within the bottom muck, the toxic slime from 100 years of industrial activity still oozes out. This keeps any real sea life from utilizing the bottom of the creek as their home. To the city’s credit, the combined sewer overflow system is slowly being phased out, but, considering the high cost, this will take at least 20 more years to complete. In the meantime, winter storms offer more sewage overflow—and paddler tales of rashes are not uncommon. Then there is unknown gasoline and sewage pollution from boats that anchor in the creek. A few years ago, the introduction of several new big boat marinas on the north side was contentious as some felt the shoreline could be put to better use as increased habitat for wildlife.

False Creek can become a great place for people, and a healthy place for plants and wildlife. It will take a lot of work, though, from the city, local businesses, developers, and all of us as residents. Considering the high volume of people living around the creek, we need to fight for the last remaining habitat opportunities in Northeast False Creek, to push for more funding to speed up sewer separation, and act now to make sure we are not putting any toxins down the storm drains. We can go further by eliminating pesticide use, driving less (which reduces oil, metals, and hydrocarbon pollution), and by contributing in small, personal ways to cleaning up the creek. There can be one small comfort in this present-day scenario, and that is if the residents are made aware and appreciate the creek as it once existed, perhaps they could make a great effort to create a smaller footprint in their lives. We can only hope that they make sure to educate all around them on the beauty and fragility of the natural landscape close to and beyond where they live.

Celia Brauer is a founder of the False Creek Watershed Society.