In June 1996, I wrote an article that was published in BC Outdoors. It was called Death Of A River.
It concerned the almost total loss of gravel in the Campbell River and how our namesake river had virtually lost its winter and summer run of steelhead, its chinook and coho and its cutthroat trout.
The main, but not only reason, was the lack of spawning gravel. BC Hydro’s dam system had prevented the historic recruitment of spawning gravel that was vital to those species. Without those specific sizes of rocks, small and large, and other vital elements that nature had sent down from the upper watersheds to the river, the fish were lost.
Fast forward to 2017 and a report commissioned by the Campbell River Salmon Foundation shows little has changed. In fact it has worsened.
Twenty years later.
The report, by Northwest Hydraulics Consultants (Sept. 2017), shows that despite hundreds of thousand of dollars paid through the public’s donations to the CRSF and money from the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program and DFO, to put gravel back into the river over several years, the traditional spawning areas in the Campbell River are almost totally wiped out.
The Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program is a partnership between BC Hydro, the province, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, First Nations and public stakeholders to conserve and enhance fish and wildlife impacted by the construction of BC Hydro Dams – that from their website.
I attended a FWCP meeting last year in which various organizations, including the CRSF, made application for funding to help fix those impacts. Of the about 100 applications, I was surprised that only a few involved fish in the Campbell River.
Really? I thought we had learned long ago that if the river and its salmon were healthy, the rest would fall in place. But no, concern for the Campbell River Chinook and steelhead had to compete with programs for marmots and other programs that left me scratching my head.
Not that I don’t like marmots and the removal of invasive plants and, well, bats are okay as long as they don’t land on me, but the Campbell River salmon should come first. What species was more affected?
I understand that there have been extraordinary rain events, which have caused BC Hydro to spill incredible amounts of water downstream. They manage their reservoir systems closely. But they get caught. And they have to spill. And they blow out gravel. I believe they are sincere in their stewardship in that regard. But lacking in another.
One fact remains. Prior to the dams, the system handled its floods. Sure it overflowed its banks. Sure it flushed gravel out. Sure it flooded. Sure, however, the river and the watershed recovered. And, the big point, sure the gravel was replenished, naturally.
The chinook, coho, steelhead and cutthroats returned, year after year. For more years than we can imagine.
Simply put, the system’s capacity for recovery was lost in a large part because of BC Hydro.
It should be BC Hydro’s duty to fulfill that recovery in whatever form and fashion it takes. Meaning? Make gravel recruitment part of BC Hydro’s regular maintenance programs. Fund it and make it as much a part of their operations as water management, because the two are one in the same as far as our salmon are concerned.
If the Campbell River Salmon Foundation had not funded a study on gravel in the Campbell after the devastating floods of 2016, no one would know that there is virtually nothing left. If the CRFS had not funded the Chinook incubation boxes in the Campbell River proper, those fish would have vanished.
Prior to the dams, 90 per cent of the salmon and trout in the Campbell River system spawned in the Campbell. Now 90 per cent spawn in the Quinsam, an adequate watershed with its own man-made perils. But it’s a watershed that simply can’t reproduce the size and vigor of salmon the Campbell did.
BC Hydro was recently awarded an environmental award for its work on saving the red-tailed frog or whatever that little creature is that apparently played havoc with their billion-dollar project upstream of the main-stem Campbell. That BC Hydro has not received similar accolades for its care and concern for iconic Campbell River salmon and steelhead is a simple juxtaposition of priorities.
It seems what happens above the existing and future power generating station is of immense importance.
And what happens in the downstream Campbell River is not. That is the tragedy BC Hydro can help fix.
They can make gravel recruitment part of the same budgetary process they use for their turbines, their power tunnels, their machinery upkeep, staffing, environmental issues and anything else that, in the end, has ended up with the Campbell River being virtually stripped of its spawning gravel.
The Campbell River has been scoured of its reproductive capabilities. It is a mother without a womb.
And BC Hydro has become a surrogate mother, whether it likes it, or finances it, or not.