A “landmark” wetland and birding hotspot in the Peace River Valley is slated to be destroyed by the Site C dam, after the B.C. government preserved it as a model conservation project.
The area around Watson Slough, which provides habitat for two dozen bird, plant and amphibian species vulnerable to extinction, is scheduled for imminent logging by BC Hydro contractors in preparation for flooding the area for Site C. Preparations are being made for logging crews and security had arrived at Bear Flat near Watson Slough Wednesday morning in prepration for clear-cutting the Bear Flat/Cache Creek area.
Peace region residents say logging the area around the slough this winter will prematurely rob them of a favourite outdoor spot, as treasured locally as Vancouver’s Stanley Park or Beacon Hill Park in Victoria.
“It’s discouraging,” Karen Goodings, a Peace River Regional District director, said in an interview. “Watson Slough is one of the landmarks of this area and I really believe it is irreplaceable.”
News of BC Hydro’s logging plans for the Watson Slough area came as communities across the globe celebrated World Wetlands Day and Australian scientists embarked on a experiment using tea bags to measure the considerable amount of carbon stored in wetlands worldwide.
The B.C. government itself calls wetlands “one of the most important life support systems on earth” and notes there is growing concern over the escalating rate of wetland losses in the province.
BC Hydro says it will compensate for the loss of about 800 hectares of wetlands to Site C — an area the size of two Stanley Parks — by enhancing existing wetlands and even making new ones.
But scientists say it’s just not possible to recreate a natural wetland like Watson Slough.
The slough took thousands of years to form and is actually a 20-hectare complex of different types of wetlands, including a marl fen, one of the rarest wetlands in North America, noted for rich plant diversity that often includes rare orchids, gentians and carnivorous plants.
“They’re going to be hard pressed to try to recreate that natural system in a different location,” Dawson Creek biologist and forester Mark Phinney said in an interview. “I would agree that it’s irreplaceable.”
“It’s going to look like a black eye if all of the forest is cleared.”
Even if BC Hydro agrees to a request from the regional district to postpone logging around the slough, the area will be under water when more than 100 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries are flooded to create the Site C reservoir.
The slough draws birders from across the continent, hoping to glimpse rare species that have been documented in what the regional district calls a “wetland of incredible biodiversity.”
Phinney said the slough provides habitat for some of B.C.’s rarest breeding bird species and a dozen species vulnerable to extinction, including the endangered Yellow Rail, a secretive wading bird that calls in the middle of the night, and the Nelson’s Sparrow, an endangered marsh-loving sparrow with an orange face.
The horned grebe, a waterbird known for its impressive courtship displays and tufted facial feathers that it can raise and lower like human eyelids, has also been sighted at Watson Slough in recent years. The grebe was listed as a species of special concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act just last year.
Watson Slough provides habitat for the western toad, a species so vulnerable to extinction that the B.C. government recently spent $200,000 building a highway tunnel for the toads in the West Kootenay region. The only true toad species in B.C., the western toad is in decline around the province, largely due to habitat destruction.
BC Hydro has said it will capture western toads in the Site C flood zone and move them to other wetlands, but the Crown corporation declined to answer questions about the rescue operation and its cost.
As a condition for receiving an environmental assessment certificate for the $8.8 billion dam, BC Hydro was required to develop a mitigation and compensation plan for wetlands lost to Site C, including rare and ancient tufa seeps.
But the strategy, included in a 600-page mitigation and monitoring plan for vegetation and wildlife BC Hydro released in 2015, leaves the Peace River Regional District with many unanswered questions about the fate of Watson Slough.
BC Hydro’s document doesn’t offer a specific mitigation plan for the slough, which prompted the district to ask the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office to investigate.
Goodings said she hopes far more will be required of BC Hydro when it comes to the slough, named after a pioneering family in the Peace.
As part of BC Hydro’s commitment to mitigate and compensate for the loss of wetlands to Site C, it gave Ducks Unlimited a $275,000 contract for “consulting support.”
Ducks Unlimited spokesperson Darryl Kroeker said the preference is for compensatory wetlands to be located as close to the Site C dam and Peace River as possible, but Ducks Unlimited has looked at “pretty much the entire province” for areas that will work as mitigation sites.
One option for a wetland, according to BC Hydro, will be on a new island not far from Watson Slough that will poke up from Site C’s reservoir.
Each wetland is unique and “it is pretty much impossible” to replace Watson Slough, according to Kroeker, a research biologist who is the head of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited Canada, a nonprofit association dedicated to restoring and conserving wetlands for waterfowl and other wildlife.
Kroeker said he is not perturbed by the loss of the slough and understands why BC Hydro needs to log around it this winter to keep Site C on track. “It’s a scheduling issue. It’s got to happen sometime. I don’t think people are ever going to be happy whenever it happens.”
While Kroeker described the short-term visual impact of logging on Watson Slough as “large,” he said amphibians and water birds will inhabit the slough after the logging even though “it will look a little different for them.”
“It’s not all over for the slough once it’s logged…I don’t know what the extent of the logging is but the beaver dams will still be there. The water will continue to be there.”
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) February 10, 2017
In fact, said Kroeker, Watson Slough will continue to function “at some capacity” even when it is at the bottom of the Site C reservoir. “Even when it’s fully inundated, it will function not necessarily as wetland habitat but as habitat for fish that will occupy the reservoir.”
Phinney said BC Hydro’s plan to leave a 15-metre buffer zone around the slough will do almost nothing to protect habitat for about 20 bird species that nest in trees around the sprawling wetland, including the western tanager, least flycatcher and yellow warbler.
“There are plenty of species, forest birds for example, that just won’t be there anymore. They’ll come back and their habitat will be gone.”
“There’s no need to start clearing that now,” said Phinney. “Why rush it? Every year you can give them is a bit of a help to the populations.”
Kroeker said Ducks Unlimited, which BC Hydro funds to work on a number of wetland projects, has spent $60,000 to restore Watson Slough since it signed an agreement with BC Hydro almost 20 years ago, after the Crown corporation purchased land around the slough in anticipation of building Site C.
The Peace River Regional District gave $28,000 to Ducks Unlimited for educational programs at the slough that Kroeker said were attended by thousands of local school children.
B.C.’s environment ministry and the federal government are also listed as partners in the Watson Slough Wetland Conservation Project, which is promoted as a tourist destination.
BC Hydro told the Joint Review Panel that examined Site C for the federal and provincial governments that the project’s effects on wetlands would not be significant.
But the panel disagreed, saying that “wetlands are hard to recreate and…restoration is uncertain.” It concluded that Site C would have a significant adverse effect on wetlands, especially on valley bottom wetlands like Watson Slough.
BC Hydro said it is considering the regional district’s request to hold off logging around the slough until the Site C reservoir is filled.
The district also asked BC Hydro to spare much of the Bear Flat area from logging, clearly visible from a highway frequented by valley residents and tourists, for at least one more year.
Image: Watson Slough. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog Canada