When the Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia first came out with a list of the province’s most endangered rivers, the idea was to spark government action to save threatened watersheds.
Publication of the most recent list, to be released Monday, makes it clear that 21 years later, B.C. still has a lot to learn about managing its watersheds. Some of the most beautiful and environmentally productive rivers on the planet are being terribly abused, or threatened.
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This year, instead of naming the top 10 endangered rivers, as it usually does, ORC has tightened the focus to just three: the Peace, lower Fraser and Elk.
In part, the short list was done because so many participants in the selection process highlighted those three. But it was also done in the hope that a shorter list would help drive home to government the need for urgent action.
“We recognize there are other threatened rivers out there,” said ORC spokesman Mark Angelo. “But these are the most imminently threatened. They need action now.”
The Peace is threatened by BC Hydro’s proposed Site C dam, which would flood more than 80 kilometres of rich valley bottom, backing up the Moberly and Halfway rivers in the process. It would destroy the habitat of moose, deer, elk, black and grizzly bears and cause the loss of 5,000 hectares of boreal forest and 5,000 hectares of productive farmland.
Migratory Arctic grayling would be affected in the Moberly River, as would bull trout and mountain whitefish in the Peace.
Native burial grounds and prehistoric sites where dinosaur footprints can be found embedded in rock formations would be drowned.
ORC’s report contains a list of Site C impacts that goes on for an entire page. It ends with this item: “Essential destruction of one of the most visually attractive and much-visited landscapes in the province.”
And what would B.C. get in return? Power that it doesn’t need right now, because there is already an excessive amount of electricity being generated around the province.
“Given the dam’s adverse impacts, the extensive local opposition and the current surplus of power recently documented by BC Hydro, the case for the dam has largely vanished,” says Mr. Angelo, who recently retired as chair of the Rivers Institute, at the B.C. Institute of Technology.
The second river on the list is one that Mr. Angelo has spent much of his life trying to protect. He calls the lower section of the river “the heart of the Fraser” and has long called on government to properly manage it.
It is, he says, “one of the most productive stretches of river in the world,” because of the huge salmon runs it supports. But there are myriad problems threatening the health of the river, from the excessive use of fertilizer on farmland in the Fraser Valley, to a city plant that spews out sewage near the mouth, bathing migrating salmon in a sickening mix.
“This discharge contains high levels of traditional contaminants that can be toxic to aquatic life such as copper and zinc but there are also concerns around … emerging contaminants … that are not filtered out, or contained, by current sewage treatment practices,” writes Mr. Angelo.
That isn’t the biggest worry. Gravel mining, which takes place on exposed bars during low water events, threatens to destroy vital salmon spawning habitat, Mr. Angelo says.
Third on the list is the Elk River, which recently made headlines because of growing concerns about the amount of selenium leaching from coal mines. The pollution has reached such high levels that cutthroat trout eggs hatched in a lab produced deformed fish.
Mr. Angelo’s report notes there are proposals to build another five coal mines in the Elk Valley which can only increase the selenium levels. The report commends Teck Coal Ltd. for recognizing how serious the situation is, but says “clean-up efforts must be ramped up … so that the current trend is reversed.”
Mr. Angelo has been involved with the list since the first one in 1992. Over the decades, he’s seen many endangered rivers saved by government. Among them are the Tatshenshini, the Upper Pitt and the Sacred Headwaters, a region where three rivers form.
“The list isn’t the only reason those rivers were saved, because a lot of people are working on these issues,” says Mr. Angelo. “But I do think it helps government focus.”
Let’s hope so, for the Peace, the Fraser, and the Elk Rivers.