Glimmering in the sunlight, bobbing like an otter
B.C. biodiversity reporter Ainslie Cruickshank and photojournalist Shane Gross took a deep dive off the...
This story is part of Going with the Flow, a series that dives into how restoring nature can help with B.C.’s flood problems — and what’s stopping us from doing it.
Adrienne Dickson rests one hand on a barbed wire fence she recently installed on her property in the small rural community of Topley, B.C. Behind her, across a sprawling hayfield, dozens of sheep graze in the shade of a forested hill and cattle are up in a pasture beyond.
Two years after Dickson and her family bought the farm in 2013, there was a major flood and the Upper Bulkley River started changing. The rising waters eroded the banks at two bends, huge chunks of the property fell off into the river.
Like farmers in river valleys around the world, Dickson was facing a loss of land caused by flooding, a problem predicted to grow in pace and scale with climate change. She wanted to find a way to avoid losing more land.
“My dad says in the olden days they would have just took a Cat and cut the corner off,” she says, chuckling and explaining this would widen the river and allow sediment to get flushed downstream.
These days, putting an excavator in the river is frowned upon, so she set out to see what options were available. She first met with a Ministry of Agriculture representative to discuss potential solutions, most of which came with a hefty price tag and would involve the use of riprap — engineered placement of rocks and sometimes concrete blocks that armour riverbanks against erosion.
Later, she serendipitously connected with some locals working to support the health of the watershed. One of those was Cindy Verbeek, northern B.C. coordinator for A Rocha Canada, a faith-based conservation organization. Verbeek and others had recently opened a hatchery in the nearby community of Houston to mitigate declining salmon populations.
“I grew up on this river and was just bullshitting with Cindy and I was talking about how the river was eating away,” Dickson says. “They were working to try to improve these sites, where they had a lot of sediment hitting the river, to try to improve the spawning grounds.”
Verbeek visited the farm and proposed addressing the erosion as part of a multi-year restoration project A Rocha was partnering on. Dickson jumped at the chance.
By planting fast-growing willow and cottonwood shoots into the eroded bank, they attempted to replicate what the ecosystem was like before the land was cleared for agriculture and development. The method — called low-tech riparian restoration — is a cost-effective alternative to mechanical flood mitigation projects and can be tailored to any impacted river ecosystem. The idea is that imitating natural systems, such as beaver dams and brushy banks, sets the stage for nature to take over and heal the damage that was done.
“When I was a kid, I remember the fish in here, like tons of salmon,” Dickson says. “I caught my first rainbow when I was six years old in this river. I want to stop the erosion of my land — and it will help the fish.”
These days, few salmon make it this far upriver due to the combined impacts of climate change, forestry, mining, agriculture and the CN Rail line, which cuts through the watershed.
“It just got ignored, for lack of a better word: ‘Oh, that’s the baby Bulkley, who cares? It’s just a little stream,’ ” she explains. “Actually, it had a lot to it and people didn’t realize. The fish supported a lot of things. And when they left, the birds left, the critters left.”
What’s happening to Dickson’s farm and the associated impacts on the ecosystem are far from isolated.
As the climate crisis intensifies, flooding, drought and unpredictable extreme weather events are becoming more commonplace. Wading through the muck of a flooded hayfield and losing a few feet of property to erosion isn’t just an inconvenience to farmers — these changes are indicative of bigger problems facing river ecosystems worldwide.
In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted loss of productivity in rivers can impact “climate regulation, water and food provisioning, pollination of crops, tourism and recreation.” In other words, rivers on their myriad paths through landscapes are an indispensable source of life.
Globally, rivers have increased in temperature by up to 1 C per decade since 2014, according to the panel. Salmon especially depend on cooler waters. As Dickson says, without the fish, everything else disappears as well.
But there’s still hope. The panel also noted “there is evidence that protection and restoration of ecosystems builds resilience” which can help river systems to continue supporting and benefiting species — including humans.
The Upper Bulkley floodplain is a perfect proving ground for restoration work. The area is home to “some of the most intense public and private land use in the Skeena watershed,” according to SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
This is a region where farming, forestry and mining play starring roles in the economy and the pickup truck reigns supreme. Not everyone here sees eye-to-eye on issues, whether that’s vaccines, religious beliefs, politics or pipelines.
Against this backdrop of divides, the riparian restoration project is a model for collaboration — it’s a partnership between conservation organizations, the Office of the Wet’suwet’en and environmental consultants, with buy-in from farmers and landowners.
“The Wet’suwet’en supported the restoration project directing [the work] and were involved in the development of the project through collaboration within our networks,” David de Wit, natural resources manager with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, told The Narwhal.
Those networks include the Upper Bulkley roundtable, a working group that meets regularly to discuss watershed initiatives, and the Morice Watershed Monitoring Trust. The trust is a science-based collaborative group that includes de Wit, on behalf of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs, and representatives of the provincial government. The group folds in monitoring data collected by industry to support its goals: “water quality and quantity suitable to sustain the health and well-being of the Wet’suwet’en.” He says they collectively secured funding to cover two years of work related to the project.
Verbeek, who is a member of the roundtable, downplays her role in the project, saying she just helped facilitate connections with landowners with properties on the river. But it’s clear she gets people — she’s a good listener and knows the community. She says the lynchpin that brought people together is salmon.
“I’ve been working in Houston for many years and sort of struggled to find something that captured the imagination of the community — until I started with salmon,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who you are and what you do, whether you’re a logger or an office person or teacher, whatever, salmon is where we connect. And so as soon as you start talking about things that are going to benefit the salmon, people want to be a part of that.”
She says part of A Rocha’s mission is to help bridge divides. Some of those divides, she says, are between settlers and Indigenous people and also between rural and urban dwellers.
“It’s fun to see people of all walks of life being part of it,” she says, beaming. “Because, yeah, we have so many things to be divided over — let’s find the things that we’re not and work on those.”
Adam Wrench, a local environmental consultant, was contracted to help lead the work.
Wrench, who is friendly and approachable, says projects like this — when added up across the landscape — have the potential to impact the entire watershed.
“Over time, it’s going to give a chance for the water table to come up and rehydrate the land. And then you’re just creating this massive sink of energy and water and nutrients, hopefully changing the cycle.”
The cycle he’s referring to is a negative feedback loop, where the river continually bursts its banks because of the constrictions placed on it from development. When it floods, it flushes sediment from the surrounding land into the water. As it recedes, that land is left compacted and stripped of nutrients.
“You can see here, right, there’s the railway,” he says, pointing across the river as a train rumbles past. “On the other side of that railway are huge sections of river that are no longer in play.”
He explains the natural floodplain once covered a much larger area of land. Now, all that’s left is Dickson’s farm.
“All that energy has nowhere to go,” he says. “What was happening here where they’re losing 15 to 20 feet a year, think about the amount of material that was going down the river from this one corner and it’s mind boggling. And then multiply that across the watershed.”
Natural cycles do see higher levels of sediment introduced into the water during spring flows and rivers are not static — they move and change. But this is different, he says, squinting in the sun as his phone chimes in his pocket. “It’s more where is that getting deposited? It’s covering spawning beds. It’s just totally destroying the hydrology.”
On Dickson’s property, the meandering river lazily flows past a scrubby bank punctuated with what looks like the remains of a stand of trees, their tops lopped off haphazardly.
But these stumps didn’t grow in this spot — they were hammered into the crumbling riverbank to provide stability and, eventually, food for mycorrhizal fungi, underground fungal networks connecting plants to nutrients via their roots. Threaded throughout the site are young willow shoots that will hopefully establish themselves, growing up to not only protect the bank from flood-related erosion but also provide shade, keeping the river cool.
“Yeah, they came in and I got no complaints about it,” Dickson says. “It was a big learning curve, because it was something new for them — this whole concept is a new idea. I said: got to start somewhere.”
Wrench says while low-tech restoration has been around for awhile, no one had tried it here. And what works in one watershed may not work in another.
The method comes with a lot of benefits, not just for the ecosystem and the farmers. It also provides employment. Whanau Forestry, a Smithers-based silviculture company, provided most of the workers.
Whanau owner Chris Howard says the project helped extend the season for a lot of his workers, most of whom come from communities with high levels of poverty and unemployment.
“This is good, significant wages, and there are skills being learned and built,” he says. “I think it’s money well spent.”
Howard says the workers — mostly Indigenous youth — live on reserves like Witset, Fort Babine and Tachet. There was even a family from Tachet that came as a package deal.
“Dad was slinging a chainsaw, doing some of those tasks, mom and daughter were doing a lot of the pruning and bucking down of the willow and whatnot. Everybody had a task and they rotated off of it.”
The first attempts to sink the posts into the bank were unsuccessful so they rigged up an attachment on an excavator and used it to pound the posts in as deep as possible. Wrench notes that without the help and expertise of the landowners, the project would have cost a lot more, and maybe not happen at all. Farmers have deep knowledge of their lands — necessary to keep afloat in the competitive agriculture industry — and they typically have a lot of equipment at hand, things like tractors, trucks and backhoes.
“We could get it done in short order, because of the landowners,” Wrench says. “If we didn’t have them involved, this would never have happened.”
“These posts are providing the physical structure to stabilize the bank to allow all this live vegetation we planted to root,” he explains, pointing out the fresh green shoots amidst the darker brown woody debris. “Using the stingers — which is a piece of steel pipe we use on a fire pump blasting water — we can plant some of these live willow cuttings and cottonwood cuttings down six feet plus into the ground.”
Once those cuttings are established, the root network spreads throughout the entire bank.
“The idea is, by the time these posts rot off and that structure disappears, there should be a fibrous root mat all the way through this corner to hopefully stabilize it.”
And the posts have another role to play. They also reintroduce nutrients that were stripped away after generations of farming, he explains.
Wrench says they completed work at six sites, including two on Dickson’s farm.
“The need for restoration of this type in the Upper Bulkley is essentially unlimited,” he says. “Nearly every outside corner on the river where it hits a field looks like what we started with on Adrienne’s property.”
He adds the work being done here can also be done on other impacted rivers, but cautions each river is unique and comes with a different set of needs.
“They’re all different: different soils, different climate.” The trick, he says, is to get your hands dirty and see how it goes — the cost of low-tech restoration is a fraction of larger-scale mitigation work.
While the restored banks held up well during high flows in the spring, no one is sure how successful the approach will be in the long term — and the funding to replicate the work on other properties in the watershed dried up this year.
The project was originally funded through the Healthy Watersheds Initiative, a $27 million B.C. government program in partnership with the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Watersheds BC. This year, the province rolled out another $30 million but the riparian restoration project didn’t make the cut.
“Direct funding agreements totalling $15 million were made between the province and a number of [Healthy Watersheds Initiative]-funded organizations that met provincial criteria,” a representative of the initiative told The Narwhal. “Watersheds BC and MakeWay are partnering under the Indigenous Watersheds Initiative to steward the other $15 million of this funding specifically to support Indigenous-led initiatives that are advancing watershed health.”
Wrench says the low-tech approach needs regular monitoring and maintenance in some cases, unlike flood mitigation projects that deploy big machines and riprap, a common sight near rail lines, highways and pipelines.
“We need to inventory what’s been done and what’s actually worked 10 years up, because we have this idea this is gonna just pop into healthy riparian, but we don’t know that for sure,” he adds. “It’s the part that’s not as flashy because you’re not just pounding out the sites, but it’s the most critical piece.”
“Funders really love to fund stuff, but they don’t necessarily want to fund people,” Verbeek says. “We can have all the stuff we want but if you don’t have the people to use the stuff to do good things, then you’re not doing anything. That’s one of the biggest struggles for us, especially with our little project, is finding funding for people.”
Verbeek puts on hip waders, preparing to walk the river and check for spawning salmon and see if there are any changes to the habitat since she was last here. The ecosystem supports the likes of otters, beavers, lamprey eels, wild cats like bobcat and lynx, bears, moose and more. Even though it’s a river that still has a lot of healing to do, even with the train rushing past, it’s undeniably beautiful.
On the far bank, she scoops up the sand, looking for baby lamprey. Her eyes light up as she shares her dream.
“The Upper Bulkley River is the most negatively impacted river in the Skeena watershed because of human activity. And I just think: wouldn’t it be cool if in the next 100 years, this would be the most positively impacted watershed in the Skeena system because of human activity?”
Going with the Flow is made possible with support from the Real Estate Foundation of BC, which administers the Healthy Watersheds Initiative, and the BC Freshwater Legacy Initiative, a project of the MakeWay Foundation. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, no foundation or outside organization has editorial input into our stories.
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