What is the future of the Squamish Spit?

The Squamish Spit.
An audience watches kiteboarders at the Spit.

Conservationists have put dismantling the Spit back on the table as an option for improving salmon survival, which has raised the ire of the Squamish Windsports Society members who flock to the kiteboarding haven each summer.

The Windsports Society is alleging the parties involved in altering the Spit are set on removing the mid-section of the berm while breaking a promise to realign the structure in a manner that would allow recreationalists to maintain land access to the structure.

The windsports society issued a statement condemning the action, and a change.org petition calling on authorities to “Save Access to Canada’s Premier Kiteboarding Location” was posted.

As of Feb. 24, it has over 2,275 signatures.

On the other hand, the Squamish River Watershed Society says government funds for the Spit project are only intended for removing or altering sections of the berm to open up the passage of juvenile salmon. They say there isn’t money in the budget for creating a realignment for windsports access.

Conservationists also say while initial plans hoped to have a realignment that would maintain land access to the windsports launching site on the southernmost tip of the Spit, the science is pointing in a different direction now.

The watershed society added that while there’s no guarantee the middle of the Spit will be removed, it’s becoming an increasingly likely outcome as more data becomes available.

The intention to alter the Spit has long been planned. Since 2017, local conservationists, Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Squamish Nation and the terminal have all been in serious talks to take out part of the berm in order to allow salmon to pass through to the estuary.

The Spit, constructed in the 1970s for a failed coal port that never came to pass, contributed to a substantial decline in salmon numbers. It prevented juvenile salmon from swimming out of the Squamish River from accessing the estuary. Staying in the wetland area traditionally gave them a chance to grow stronger before venturing out into the ocean. However, the Spit blocked fish from accessing that area.

The Squamish Nation, which has been a key partner in the project, expressed support for the removal of the Spit.

“In recognition of the harmful effects this physical barrier has on fish movement, particularly movement of chinook salmon into Skwelwil’em (Squamish Estuary), the Squamish Nation is in full support of this proposed project,” said Nation spokesperson Coun. Syeta’xtn (Chris) Lewis in a written statement.

“We have an inherent responsibility to take care of the sts’u’kwi7 (salmon). We have provided our input and guidance to our partners Squamish River Watershed Society and Fisheries and Oceans Canada on this project, along with many other important habitat restoration projects in the unceded homelands of the Squamish Nation.”

The Squamish Windsports Society, or SWS, told The Chief on Feb. 22 they had recently learned that plans to remove the middle section of the Spit are moving forward in the fall.

According to society vice-president Geoffrey Waterson, the watershed society told him last year that plans to only remove the middle of the Spit were off, and that they were instead looking at a realignment.

As of Monday, Waterson alleges the watershed society has changed its tune and will implement a removal of the Spit’s midsection, but there appear to be no plans for when or if the realignment will take place.

He said this was a sudden change in plans that did not receive approval from the windsports community.

He said the watershed society informed him in the middle of last year that the removal of the midsection of the Spit was off the table — at the most, a culvert was to be installed in 2021.

Waterson said he was also told the project’s focus would be on creating a realignment of the Spit that would create land access to the launching site via Third Avenue.

However, last week, things changed.

Waterson said the watershed society informed him that the removal of the midsection of the Spit would go forward in 2021, probably sometime after the summer kiting season.

“I’m not happy about it at all,” he said.

“Partly because I’d been speaking with them on behalf of the Squamish Windsports Society and I believed, based on our communication, that we were working towards Third Avenue [realignment], and I told the kiteboarding community, the windsports community that that’s what was happening. I put my name on the line and trusted them.”

Furthermore, he also supplied The Chief with a signed agreement obtained via a Freedom Of Information request, which gives an overview of the proposed project.

“Adjustments to the Spit will also provide access for the recreational user groups, in particular the Windsports Society, as well as act as a deflection berm to deflect sediment from accumulating in the west berth of the Squamish Terminals,” reads the document.

The agreement, signed in early December 2017, bears the signatures of a DFO representative and the executive director of the watershed society.

Waterson also pointed to a slideshow presentation from the watershed society that was posted to YouTube on Nov. 3, 2018. The presentation lists the realignment of the Spit to Third Avenue as one of the project outcomes.

On the other hand, Patricia Heintzman, a spokesperson for the watershed society, said agreements are subject to change when more research on the matter emerges.

“With all good intention, this was included in the original proposal based on common understanding, information and judgment at the time,” Heintzman wrote in an email.

“As with all restoration projects like this, they are iterative; as the science, data and river modelling gets more robust and fine-tuned, the science-directed outcomes often point to a new solution or alternative direction.”

At the time, it was thought a berm at the end of Third Avenue would both help the salmon and serve as a silt deflector for the terminals’ west berth and navigational channel, she wrote.

“The science, which has been very robust and the modelling quite complex over the past several years, and which is still ongoing, is indicating that this is not the solution and may in fact negatively affect silting at the west berth of the Terminal,” she continued.

“Again, the analysis and the modelling is still ongoing and the various partners and stakeholders are still analyzing the studies through their lenses and their expertise.”

Ultimately, it appears if recreationalists want to have land access to the Spit, they may have to take it upon themselves.

“You have to be the masters of your own domain in this, and the funding has always been for restoration of salmon habitat. Funding has never been there for ensuring there’s this type of access or that type of access for any other special interest group,” Heintzman said in a phone interview.

“We obviously want them to get there, but it’s always been their responsibility. And, of course, we’ll help champion what they would like to realize, but it certainly has never been, from Day 1, in the scope of [this] project.”

The Chief also reached out to the DFO to ask if a breach in the agreement had occurred.

In response, DFO spokesperson Michele Fogal wrote: “Agreements for multi-year complex projects change regularly and DFO can amend contribution agreements regularly to adjust to changing conditions or needs.  The [Squamish River Watershed Society] is a valued partner and there has been no breach of our agreement.”

Fogal also said final designs for the project have not been completed.

She also added the windsports society has been a participant in regular technical working groups.

Squamish Terminals, which has a major stake in the matter, held off on declaring whether a removal of the Spit would be in its best interests.

“[The watershed society] has commissioned a report, which we received last week, and we are currently in the process of conducting a peer review to understand the impacts of the removal of a section of the Spit on the Terminal (safety of navigation at sea, sedimentation transfer, shoreline stability and wharf structural integrity),” wrote terminal manager Paul Morris.

“Until the review is complete it is premature to comment on a preferred solution.”

The District of Squamish issued a statement noting it had limited say over the project.

“The project is a partnership between the Squamish River Watershed Society, Squamish Nation and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and we are currently learning about the work, timelines and impacts,” reads the statement.

“The District will only be required to sign off on an engineering report regarding flood management. As we continue to learn more about this next phase of the project, the District will also continue its efforts to facilitate solution-focused conversation among parties as best it can, recognizing that we have limited influence.”

-With files from Jennifer Thuncher

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