The prospect of gravel removal operations resuming on the Vedder River this summer has riled up salmon stewards over the potential for environmental and fish habitat damage.
Gravel extraction on the Vedder has been on hold since 2018.
The Fraser River Salmon Society (FVSS) fired off a letter to federal and provincial authorities this week, beseeching them not to issue the permits this summer.
“We are asking that the regulatory agencies (including FLNRORD and Fisheries and Oceans Canada), refuse to grant the necessary permits for this damaging gravel removal project for 2020,” according to the letter of May 25, signed by FVSS president Dean Werk and Terry Bodman, chair of the FVSS gravel stewardship group.
The letter argues there is no defensible flood-protection argument, despite it being the rationale used by the Vedder River Management Area Committee (VRMAC) since it was established in 1983.
Two years ago, the large-scale gravel removal was put on hold as it was determined there wasn’t enough deposited sediment material in the river in the two-kilometre stretch from the Vedder bridge to the Vedder Canal at Keith Wilson. Since then, the Chilliwack waterway “has now extensively lost even more gravel on its own accord” due to natural erosion, the letter-writers stated.
“This project is ostensibly for flood protection,” the letter continued. “However, it is the opinion of the group based on all of the technical information being made available in support of this proposal by the City of Chilliwack, there is no discernible merit for this proposal particularly when balanced off with the environmental damage that it will cause.”
Any flood reduction benefits would be “tiny” they say.
“This is an operation that would significantly harm, alter, disrupt and destroy sensitive fish habitat in one of British Columbia’s most important salmon and steelhead streams,” according to the FVSS letter-writers.
This latest gravel extraction “is not an acceptable trade-off” given the damage it will cause.
“Let me emphasize: The stewardship groups I represent are not against gravel removal per se from the Vedder River, provided there is a demonstrable benefit to lowering the flood profile where it is legitimately required, and where environmental damage can be reasonably mitigated,” the letter-writer added.
The plan for 2020 by VRMAC identified up to eight potential gravel removal sites on the Vedder, which would total 95,000 cubic metres, confirmed David Blain, director of engineering for City of Chilliwack, which currently chairs the river management committee.
But since the plan recommends “removing 10 per cent less than the long-term average deposition rate” in years with relatively low peak flows, which applies to 2019-20, a smaller total of 66,000 cubic metres of gravel is the actual target for removal in 2020, Blain clarified.
Which sites ultimately see sediment removed will be determined by the approving agencies.
The historic substantiation for gravel removal operations, which are timed for every second year on even years, is protecting parts of Chilliwack and Abbotsford from flood risk.
“If no gravel is removed the river bed will build up to the point where the dikes become inadequate,” Blain stated in a series of emailed responses.
The last time gravel was removed for flood protection was 2016.
“In recent years the winter storms have been relatively mild so gravel flow in the Vedder River has been reduced,” Blain said. “Increased gravel deposition in the Vedder Canal over the past two years is causing a ‘backwater effect’ that increases the flood water level in the area where the dike is most at risk.
“Also, by removing modest levels of sediment every two years it avoids significant swings in gravel removal, (i.e. no removal in low deposition years and much larger removals in high years), which is deemed to be better for fish habitat.”
The timing of removal is always geared to avoiding pink salmon spawning years.
Still some are questioning whether or not this work can be done environmentally safely at all.
“The gravel removal program has been undertaken for close to 40 years and each removal is monitored and evaluated by a professional biologist. Over the years the program and methods have been refined to not only not damage habitat but ultimately to have a net benefit on habitat in the river by adding habitat complexity,” Blain added.
The mandate of VRMAC, a joint body comprising reps from the City of Chilliwack, City of Abbotsford, Province of B.C., and Fisheries and Ocean Canada, is managing gravel removal operations for the purpose of flood protection.
The FVSS letter concludes with a stark reminder to the regulatory agencies enforcing provincial and federal statutes: “You are certainly aware of the significance of the economic and recreational value this river provides to our community and to thousands of fishers from across the entire Lower Mainland and elsewhere.
“These statutes should protect against capricious and inappropriate removal of gravel where it is not warranted for flood protection.”
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