VICTORIA The latest controversy over gravel removal from the lower Fraser River illustrates the toxic climate of suspicion that still attends environmental issues in B.C.
For years the bottom of the lower Fraser has been inexorably rising, as millions of tonnes of gravel, sand and debris roar down through the Fraser Canyon each spring and drop on the flood plain as the water slows. Decades of diking and redirecting in one of the world’s great food production, transport and human habitation zones have changed the dynamic of B.C.’s main artery, confining the river and its vast detritus.
The science, like the sand, is settled. There is an unnatural but all too real buildup. We need the planetary equivalent of coronary bypass surgery, before the 2007 tally of floods (Prince Rupert, Smithers, and Prince George among them) starts to sound like fond memories.
The fruitless bickering and stalling between Ottawa and Victoria on this problem is all too familiar to Fraser Valley folks. Federal fisheries looks after salmon and B.C. environment looks after the sturgeon and other fresh-water fish. A long-sought agreement to take half a million cubic metres a year out is expiring with only a small fraction removed.
In the last couple of years B.C. ministers Barry Penner and Pat Bell have quietly pointed east when asked about this problem, observing the premier’s third or fourth commandment: Thou shalt not pick fights in public with Ottawa. Now word comes that last spring’s near-miss flooding has prompted a serious effort at Herrling Island near Chilliiwack to take out more than 50,000 truckloads. That’s most of the annual target amount that hasn’t been getting done, out a single site. And it has to be done between January and March when water and fish activity are lowest.
A fisheries biologist now at BCIT, Marvin Rosenau, tossed a Christmas cracker into this plan before going on holidays. In a long email that found its way to me and numerous river watchers, he calls the Herrling Island plan “the biological equivalent of running a D9 Caterpillar tractor down the centre of the spawning beds of the Adams River.”
Further, he alleges that first he and then a couple of weeks ago another provincial biologist were transferred off the Environment Ministry’s gravel committee for standing up for fish. He and the other scientist say that in the latest case, deputy minister Joan Hesketh acted personally at the behest of Penner and his Chilliwack neighbour John Les, who as Minister of Public Safety is responsible for flood control.
Alas, Rosenau blows his credibility when he claims that this is all a gravel grab for the construction business. Not only is this hotly denied by both Penner and Les, it doesn’t pass the common sense test. There are safer places to get gravel.
What’s really happening is that Ottawa and Victoria were scared by the record freshet last spring. So scared that B.C. spent a fast $33 million fixing dikes, with Ottawa as usual tottering in weeks late to cover half of the cost. B.C. has put up another $100 million for the coming years, and it may not be enough. As for the delicate habitat of woody debris that will be disturbed by a series of gravel extractions this size, I’ll just ask you this.
Have you stood on the banks of the lower Fraser River during a strong spring runoff? Once the ice is through, the “woody debris” can include clumps of giant trees ripped out of the ground. The power is exceeded only by glaciers.
Pardon our carbon emissions, but it’s time to start the gravel trucks.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press newspapers. firstname.lastname@example.org