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Britannia Creek in the pink — salmon, that is

Return of life to former 'most endangered' stream heralded as a triumph of will, ingenuity

Mark Angelo, the founder of B.C. Rivers Day and current chair of both B.C. and World Rivers Day, recalls a time not that long ago when Britannia Creek ran clear but lifeless. He could tell it was different from most others just by sticking his hand into it.

"I remember being on that creek and putting a hand in the creek, the water had a funny feeling on your skin. You could tell just from the feel of the water on your hand that it just wasn't right," Angelo told The Chief on Tuesday (Sept. 13).

"It was very clear but the reason that it was so crystal clear was that it did not support any life. No fish, no vegetation, nothing."

Angelo and other conservationists, though, were rejoicing this week at the news that Britannia Creek which as far as anyone knows has been lifeless for about 80 years and as recently as 2001 was listed as B.C.'s most endangered river was found to have between 20 and 50 pink salmon populating its lower reaches.

The finding, first reported by local environmentalist John Buchanan and since confirmed by Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officials, is being hailed as an environmental breakthrough and affirmation of the ability of people to clean up and rehabilitate dead and dying waterways through restoration and environmental mitigation.

Angelo said a media blitz to celebrate the achievement is planned on Sept. 25 B.C. Rivers Day 2011.

"It could be 80 years, it could be 90 years, but the bottom line is this is the first time we've seen salmon documented and it is exciting," said Angelo, chair of the Rivers Institute at B.C. Institute of Technology. "This is something that a few years ago, no one would have thought possible.

"What's unfolding in Britannia right now is truly a sign of hope that if we keep working to clean up these systems, we can make a difference."

The creek's lower reaches were effectively rendered lifeless during the first half of the 20th century. Activity at Britannia copper mine, which opened in 1904 and by 1930 was the largest copper mine in the British Commonwealth, left behind sulphur-bearing waste product that created liquid sulphuric acid, which in turn dissolved large amounts of harmful heavy metals, including not surprisingly copper.

The heavy metals an estimated 450 kilograms of it every day at the peak of mining activity leached into the creek, killing off all manner of plant and animal life.

"The PH level was the same, apparently, as the surface of Mars. That was a comparison that was made at one point in time," said Buchanan, who spotted the first pink salmon in the creek about three weeks ago and has returned to find ever-increasing numbers on subsequent checks.

"We found life on Britannia Creek. Perhaps there's hope for Mars now."

Rob Bell-Irving, DFO community advisor for the Sea to Sky Corridor, on Friday (Sept. 9) said that until the past couple of weeks, officials knew that the creek's aquatic environment was steadily improving, to the point where trout mostly cutthroat but also a few rainbows were making their way into the creek's lower reaches.

The discovery of pink salmon in the creek only confirms that it's possible for the creek to come all the way back, he said. While a number of factors have contributed to the rehabilitation process, Bell-Irving said the biggest is the water treatment plant built after public pressure brought the provincial government and former mine operators to the table with the necessary $60 million in funding the linchpin in one of the largest environmental clean-ups in Canadian history.

Construction the plant began just a month after that last "most endangered river" listing in 2001, and was completed in 2006. A "plug" placed in the mine in 2000 helped slow the flow of toxic elements, and the treatment plant effectively neutralizes the remaining effluent before it's discharged back into nature.

Before the plant began operating, it's not just the creek that was dead, Angelo said. He took up diving a couple of decades ago and used to occasionally dive into Howe Sound near Britannia Creek's outflow. The ocean floor around the creek's mouth was essentially lifeless for between one and two kilometres into the sound.

"As you approached the outlet, the area right in and around the creek, there were no crabs, no shellfish, no vegetation. It was just a dead zone, very much a moonscape," he said.

Both Angelo and Bell-Irving said the cessation of the discharge and the return of life to Britannia Creek is part of a much bigger success story the return of ecological health to most of Howe Sound. Over the past couple of years, it has led Pacific white-sided dolphins, orcas and other species of whales to begin returning to the sound.

"We've seen new sewage treatment facilities on Bowen Island. We've seen improved sewage treatment at the Port Mellon pulp mill; we've seen great work by local streamkeeper groups to improve habitat for herring," Angelo said.

Bell-Irving said the Britannia Beach community also deserves credit for throwing its full support behind the clean-up effort.

"There's a strong message here when you have a wonderful community like Britannia Beach, a group of honest and hard-working people, it's a very soulful community anywhere where we have that kind of community spirit, it's always possible to bring back salmon," he said.

Buchanan said the return of salmon to the creek could also be what he called a "game-changer" for all manner of development in the area including both run-of-river power and land development.

Just two months ago, an official with MacDonald Development Corp., which is redeveloping and revitalizing the community's commercial area, was quoted in the media as having said that of all the bureaucratic hoops through which the developer has to jump, "The fisheries is one of the most frustrating because there are no fish but we still have to do due diligence"

Now that there are fish in the creek, "we have to make sure from a development perspective that those new fish stocks and the run-off into the stream is going to be taken care of," Angelo said.

He added, "This is a good-news story and one I think that's worth celebrating It just highlights the importance of doing what's needed and that we can, in fact, turn things around if those right steps are taken."