Water is Life: An Afternoon at the Roundhouse

What did you do over the May long weekend?

While the sun was shining and the seawall was bustling with cyclists, families and the bright colours of late spring, I showed my dedication to wetlands by spending the afternoon under the large timbers of the Roundhouse for a conference on the issues facing Vancouver’s watershed. Organized by the False Creek Watershed Society, “Water is Life” brought water-related stewardship groups from the Metro Vancouver area together under one roof. The event was meant to facilitate greater dialogue and unite a variety of concerned individuals toward this common cause, something that it seems to have taken the first steps toward doing.

Many familiar faces were present at the event, including individuals I have been fortunate to hear in other recent public presentations. While his talk was still fresh in my mind, I was happy to hear Jonn Madsen (Squamish Streamkeepers) present his engaging research on local Herring populations and their restoration (see my article “Celebrating our Lifeblood“). Dr. John Richardson  (UBC Professor of Forestry) spoke to the impacts of climate change on the Fraser River Basin, something a little different from a lecture on this relationship to local amphibians (see my article “Amphibian Habitat…“). Both individuals have done significant in-depth research that deserves reiteration!

Other presenters were less known to me in the volunteering I have done with the BCWF Wetlands Education Program and I welcomed their novile perspectives. The large room was literally filled with groups presenting their work at tables dressed with boards and posters and demonstration materials. Seating in the center of the room began to fill with the screening of the film Rise of the Salmon People by Jeremy Williams at the opening of the event. The object of this film was the passionate demonstration in support of wild salmon in the Fraser Basin by First Nations, environmentalists and concerned communities in the form of a canoe journey in 2010. Celia Brauer, co-founder of the False Creek Watershed Society, brought out her salmon puppet to address the audience on the value of lost streams and creeks in Vancouver and the reasons for and history of their loss. Many of us are more than aware of the challenges facing wild Salmon and their importance to the larger eco-system: they are a common keystone symbol of BC watersheds.

At this point I must stress the importance of other species to our ecosystems, aside from Salmon (which tend to take the centre stage). I was pleased with the multiple perspectives offered by a variety of presenters. Previously mentioned talks by Jonn Madsen and John Richardson are excellent examples of this. While Herring is an edible commodity, and is highly prized on the Asian market, it is seldom used as a mascot for watershed protection- it is just too small. Mr. Madsen uses his research to impart the importance of this small fish to an exceptionally large foodchain, relating it to fragile Eelgrass forests, even smaller animals such as phytoplancton and Neocalanus Plumchrus (a strange and interesting invertebrate called a Copepod) and those much larger and more visible marine favourites: dolphins and whales. This information sharing is critical to protecting the dwindling population of Herring from threats of local industry and development in particular.

John Richardson also gave a larger, landscape approach to understanding the impacts of these developments and industry, as well as climate change, on the Fraser River and its lost marshy riparian habitat and estuaries.

“If you ever get into a kayak or even just walk along the North Arm of the Fraser through Vancouver, you’ll see there’s not much left there. It’s mostly ripwrapped, or there’s no natural floodplain…there’re very few natural marshes along there. We’ve really alienated the habitat for the organisms that once upon a time depended upon it.”

A valuable fact that he shared was that there are 42 fish species in the Fraser River and only 5 of these are commercially harvested Salmon. By showing the decline of other little-researched and non-commodified fish such as the Largescale Sucker (which makes up some of the largest biomass of freshwater fish in the Fraser River), he made it clear that our impact to the largest river in BC has affected a great number of species, many of whom we are not aware of the extent of our impact upon.

Other perspectives included the difficulties that our infrastructure presents to the health of Vancouver’s watershed. Celia Brauer gave an introduction to the loss of Vancouver’s many watercourses and some ideas for restoration work, such as pocket marshes in the waterlogged Douglas Park, as opposed to engineered drains. Bryn Davidson (St. George’s Creek Blueway) discussed the plans and community action to daylight old creeks within the city, beginning with a community-created mural along St. George street that will happen next month. The slides he presented on the history of Vancouver’s lost creeks, and particularly the visual plans for how to revive them were of great interest to me, as I live only blocks from here!

Christianne Wilhelmson (Executive Director of the Georgia Strait Alliance) shared some disturbing facts about the way we handle our waste water in the Salish Sea:

“Waste water is the number one surface polluter of water in Canada. In Metro Vancouver, only 50% of our waste water is treated to what is considered around the world as a minimum standard.”

Her frightening description of the mixing of storm water and raw sewage that gets discharged into the Strait of Georgia and the Burrard Inlet during the rainy months sent chills down my spine. Thankfully, Ms. Wilhelmson did present pilot projects, such as one at the Lulu plant (the removal of Phosphorus from waste) that allow for us to reduce this environmental footprint. Other concerns were presented by Ben West (Wilderness Committee) who spoke primarily of pipelines, refineries and tankers that threaten both inland watercourses and our coast. An example of this is the 300,000 barrel/day pipeline which runs from Edmonton to Burrard Inlet and carries fuel that is primarily used domestically. While some of this fuel is refined on the Inlet, nearly 20 tanker-fulls are sent to the Chevron station each day for refining before returning to the BC coast. When we are aware of how existing use of fossil fuel has the ability to threaten our water on this daily basis it becomes ever more critical to innovate current technologies and methods of fuel production and consumption.

The afternoon ended with an overview of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan by City Councillor, Andrea Reimer. She shared her belief that Vancouver must work harder to protect and enhance our riverfront and smaller creek systems, which, in contrast to coastal inlet, is little recognized outside of British Columbia. An example was given of how the city of New York has been working to address the quality of their waterfront with the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a model that Reimer feels is the one of the best models for bringing citizens together to find creative solutions for the responsible use and conservation of watersheds.

“Here in Vancouver we could be looking at internal Blueways, not just at the River, but the creek system that fed that river historically. “

Her enthusiasm for greening the city was heartening, although I wished to hear more about city plans for wetland protection which is listed as a municipal goal.

What could I take away from this conference? The event ended with moderator, Rita Wong, proposing a declaration to protect our local watershed…something that received positive response. I left with the feeling that this just might happen with the right collaboration of citizens, advocates and government who share their concern over the waters that all of our lives depend upon.

To see more photographs from this event, visit our Flickr set.

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