Aaron Hill: The impacts of B.C. floods on wild salmon

It may take the fish several generations to recover but there's also a historic opportunity to improve habitat

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      By Aaron Hill

      Lots of people are asking us what the flooding in southwest B.C. means for wild salmon.

      I’ll get to that, but first I must acknowledge the tremendous loss and devastation being felt by our friends and neighbours in the landslide and flood zones. Our hearts go out to them.

      The first responders and volunteers who have risked their lives over the past few days deserve heaps of praise for getting their neighbours to safety and protecting vital infrastructure. For example, there’s the 200 volunteers who saved the Barrowtown pump station that is keeping the Sumas flats from turning back into the 134-square-kilometre lake that existed there 100 years ago. They built a dam around the pump station and welded the windows over with steel plates.

      The flooding on the flats is already terrible, but if the pump station had failed, the devastation and risk to human life would have increased dramatically.

      There’s also the fishers who have been using their jetboats to move people and livestock out of the flood zone, and to return stranded salmon back to the river. They are all heroes.

      Unfortunately, this flooding event is not surprising. Climate scientists have been warning us for years to expect bigger floods to occur more often. While individual weather events can’t usually be attributed to global warming, what happened this week is exactly in line with the climate models and with the trends we are seeing with our own eyes.

      It has also been obvious for quite a while that the way we’ve been treating our watersheds was going to make flooding and landslides worse. Experts have been telling us we can’t log the Fraser watershed to this extent (on top of the wildfire impacts, mountain pine beetle attacks and more intense weather) and expect anything different.

      Aaron Hill has extensive experience dealing with ecology and resource-management issues.

      Flooding is an essential part of a healthy natural river ecosystem, but it often takes a toll on salmon. This week’s flooding is taking an abnormally heavy toll. Many southern B.C. salmon populations are already at historic lows. Chum and coho are spawning now, and the raging waters are making successful spawning very difficult.

      For salmon that have already spawned, the flood waters are scouring out their eggs or depositing silt on them. And those massive pump stations that are moving water out from behind the dikes and back into the river? Most of them are not “fish-friendly,” meaning they are killing large numbers of the fish that ended up in the flood zone.

      It could take salmon several generations to recover.

      Pollution is a problem, too. We hear from colleagues in Chilliwack that the waters in the flood zone are festooned with petrochemical slicks, human and animal waste, dead animals, and garbage. Volunteers from the flood zone are dealing with rashes and eye infections.

      All levels of government have known for many years that their dikes and pump stations are not strong enough to handle the increased flooding brought by global warming. They’ve been working toward doing something about it, but the planning has been too slow, and here we are. They have to kick their flood prevention into high gear.

      But here’s the kicker for salmon. Over 1,500 kilometres of salmon habitat in the lower Fraser floodplain are blocked off by obsolete dikes, pump stations and floodgates.

      These structures need major upgrades to keep us safer. As those structures get upgraded, we have a historic opportunity to make them safe for salmon and open up huge swaths of prime salmon habitat. This will help rebuild depleted salmon runs. This is what “building back better” will look like for people and salmon.

      We can also take better care of our watersheds by changing the way we log and develop our lands.

      Let’s leave last century’s failed water and land-management practices in the past where they belong. And for the love of all that is good in the world, let’s get serious about curbing our greenhouse gas emissions before things get even worse.

      Want to help?

      GoFundMe has set up a hub for verified fundraisers for B.C. flooding victims here.

      Donate through Red Cross here.

      Donate here to BC Search and Rescue.

      Take action for salmon-friendly flood control here.

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