By Roy L Hales
By the time you hear this, the Ministry of Transportation crew will have left Basil creek. As Cortes Streamkeeper Cecil Robinson observed, prior to this “if the fish came early and the rains were late, they just simply couldn’t get through the old culvert. They died right there.” Now more of them will swim upstream to their spawning grounds. Then he proceeded to describe how the “Basil Creek culvert project was over the top from the very beginning. Everything that needed to be done, is done: and then some more, always some more.”
How The Basil Creek Culvert Project Is Over The Top
He added, “Everything from interaction with the community: … there is an old bridge, so they are going to rebuild it; There is bamboo to take out, well, let’s keep digging and make a pond. The project manager, Sean Wong, just keeps adding things in and improving on the plan almost day by day.”
There is no question that this project costs more than an ordinary culvert replacement.
It is a provincial government project funded by a grant from the Pacific Salmon Foundation and also a Fisheries & Oceans [DFO] grant awarded to the Friends of Cortes Island Society.
In terms of investment for the future, the benefits probably outweigh costs by a hundredfold.
A threatened salmon population will now have easy access to its spawning grounds.
In terms of public relations, Cec says, “[Sean Wong] has salvaged my opinion of the bureaucracy. I realize that he is unusual, but I have hope in me again.”
“Beyond that, Stacey Larson, the community Advisor from DFO – There’s another person working in government that is a remarkable lady. She’s all over it. She’s smart , understands and she cares.”
He added, “The crew here is just an amazing group of people, right down to each individual. They actually love what they are doing and they care about it.”
“I found this super interesting because a lot of this is really new to me. We are working under the direction of Sean Wong, who does this all the time. So I’ve been learning all kind of neat stuff about how you create their habitat, what they need. and that kind of stuff,” said Nick Richardson, from Landtec industries. on Quadra Island.
Emily Grub, from the Central West Coast Forest Society, has previously been involved in culvert replacements and stream mediation.
“This open bottom culvert is definitely a new thing and its been interesting creating the green wall as well… Never been involved in that. But as far as the restoration aspect, definitely been involved with lots of that and its great to see it all kind of happening here and see all the structures and stream morphology coming back together again,” she said.
Though Sean Wong told me they would be doing stream remediation below the new culvert, I did not expect anything this extensive. By the time the crew is finished, they will have been working, on the 150 metre long section between the culvert and tidewater, for a week and a half.
Cec was also surprised by the scale of operations, “The restoration that is happening right now, between the culvert and high tide line, is more than we had ever imagined.”
Richardson explained, “This stream was clogged up with debris and there were big steps that the salmon were having trouble swimming up. So what we are doing here is creating spawning pools and what they call riffles – which are sort of undulating ramps that allow the water to go from one elevation to another and not create a barrier for the fish. They flow into these spawning pools, which we are lining with spawning gravel on the bottom.”
Spawning Pools & Hiding Spots
” As the flows recede and the water level drops, a lot of time the fish, especially the salmonids (the trout), will use that pool habitat for their rearing. It usually offers more protection. In the case of Basil Creek, they were limited in that the pools were getting very shallow. A lot of them were only five centimetres or less, with limited cover,” said Sean Wong, senior biologist with the Ministry of Transportation’s Environmental Management branch.
There were very few fish in Basil Creek when the crew arrived.
“We found signs of predation: racoons; and you can have things like mink, otter, heron that can easily prey on the fish that are exposed in shallow water. So part of our prescription and restoration through the section downstream of Whaletown road, is to create deeper pools, as well as to provide some cover for the fish, in the form of woody debris placements. As well they will provide hydraulic features for resting areas, hiding spots. The big thing is just to provide more cover, so fish are less susceptible to predators.”
“That’s what the cover is all about. They put big rocks down and then we drill holes and lace big logs on top, so there is a lot of space underneath for them to hide,” said Laurie Mathieu, a local contractor and Klahoose Nation member.
Bringing In Woody Debris
In old growth forests, woody debris naturally falls into streams.
Wong explained, “It provides nutrients as well as other organisms. Periphyton grows on it [and] essentially leads to primary production in streams. But, as well, leads to a more diverse habitat with cover for fish.
“Where water does not flow uniform and evenly, it meanders in and around wood features.”
Historically, we lose a lot of these features in cleared areas.
“Companies used to physically remove wood that was in a stream, even though it provided a natural biological function. These days we actually do the opposite.”
Wong’s crew sought out the logs they put in Basil Creek.
(There is more detail in the podcast)
They were also putting gravel in the stream for the chum salmon, who normally spawn in the lower reaches of streams.
“If [the gravel] is clean, free of silts and clays, we’ll actually get higher production of the chum,” said Wong.
When there is too much silt, or sediments, “the developing embryos essentially suffocate: They never develop into fish.”
As chum head out the estuary relatively soon, the principal obstacle to their population growth is lack of habitat.
There was a good-bye barbeque on the beach the day I taped this story. The voices you hear in the background of the following interviews were people gathered around the fire where there was salmon, oysters and smokies cooking. Both of the female volunteers from the Central West Coast Forest Society were leaving.
“I want to come back and once everything is all settled in, watch the fish come back and watch everything grow. That would be amazing. Come back with children one day maybe, you never know, it would be like – I built this thing,” said Kiya Porteous.
Some of the neighbours joined in.
Yvonne Louie, from the Klahoose Nation, passed smoked salmon out to everyone.
“I would just like to talk about the creek work that’s going on. I think it is a wonderful idea for our fish to come back. It has been a long time since they’ve been coming up here in order to spawn, so hopefully this year they will be coming back,” she said.
Sean Wong gave me a message for the people of Cortes, which you can listen to one the podcast.
On To The Culvert In Whaletown
By the time this story is broadcast on Cortes Community Radio, the crew should be starting a project in Whaletown. As this culvert passes under the road that almost every vehicle takes en route to the ferry, they will have to build bypass. One of the crew told me it will consist of a single lane. They expect to be there for two to two and a half weeks.
Cec Robinson says, “The was never part of the original discussion. Sean looked at it and said. ‘Well gee, it needs doing just as badly as Basil and we are going to have the crew and machines here. The expertise will be on the island. There is huge efficiency in doing two jobs instead of one.'”
Top photo Credit: One of the pools being dug out of Basil Creek – Roy L Hales