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Dismantle the Squamish Spit to save fish: Conservationist

Proponents of removal say it’s time, windsport society disagrees

Local conservationist John Buchanan knows his point of view is not going to be popular with some in Squamish, but he wants to be on the right side of history, he says. 

Buchanan wants those with the authority, including the District of Squamish, the province and the Squamish Nation, to start to plan long term for the decommissioning of the Squamish Estuary Training Dike, otherwise known as the Spit and the road leading to it. 

In May of 2015, the province approved repairs for the Squamish River Training Dike relating to damages caused by the 2014 flood, but after hearing that work was set to begin, Buchanan wrote to all levels of government asking that the funds be held back and a long-term plan be made to remove the structure.

“I ask that all interested parties convene to start discussions on how best the training dike be removed, either by larger bridge span openings or the complete removal of the dike altogether,” Buchanan said in a letter copied to The Chief and sent to representatives from the federal and provincial government, the District of Squamish and the Squamish Nation. 

The province will reimburse 80 per cent of the District of Squamish’s costs through the Disaster Financial Assistance fund for the almost $100,000 worth of work.

The training dike was originally constructed to lead to a coal port, but when public protest stopped the project in the early 1970s, the road and Spit remained. 

Today, it is a popular spot for kiteboarding and other watersports.

But since it was built, the structure has had a devastating impact on salmon stocks in the Squamish River, Buchanan said.

“The declining Chinook salmon stocks were the most shocking. Even today the Squamish Chinook numbers are so low that they should be considered on the endangered species list,” he said.
“The decline is a direct response to when the training dike was installed.”

Buchanan supplied The Chief with Fisheries and Oceans Canada figures that show from 1951 to 1970 there were an average of about 19,000 Chinook salmon in the Squamish River. From 1971 to 1980, after the Spit was built, those numbers fell to an average of approximately 6,000. It is unclear what the numbers are today, as a record is no longer kept. 

Another issue with the erosion work currently being done by the district, say Buchanan and the Squamish River Watershed Society’s Edith Tobe, is that they were blindsided by news of the maintenance. 

They both questioned why the Squamish Estuary Management Committee (SEMC), of which Tobe is a member, was not looped in before work began, as is protocol. 

“I am really surprised to see this work,” Tobe said in an email sent to The Chief. 

“The SEMC has been the ideal and logical place to provide information on project proposals as there is still a strong committed body representing the community, business [and] industry sector that would benefit from knowing of capital projects being undertaken within [the estuary].”

An opportunity was missed, Tobe said, “as the Squamish River Watershed Society would very much have liked to see a whole different crossing here instead of a culvert… We have been studying the culvert crossings along the Training Dike and they are not performing as intended for improved fish access.”

Mayor Patricia Heintzman said the committee should have been involved in the plans for erosion repair, and said she can’t explain why it wasn’t.  

“It is our total mistake in not contacting the committee, but I think it was seen as we are just fixing what got eroded. This is not a change or shift or upgrade to the dike,” she said.

Heintzman added that the committee is a shadow of its former self and needs to be rethought

“We’ve had senior levels of government sort of abandon ship and it just hasn’t been a functioning entity,” she said. “So we need to either abandon that committee and set up something differently that maybe isn’t relying on the province and the feds to be participatory or get those people back at the table.” 

Windsports weigh-in

Not surprisingly, the Squamish Windsports Society is unsupportive of removing the dike, which has become a hotspot for kiteboarding and other watersports. 

The society leases the location from the district from May through September each year. 

The society’s Chris Rollett said the organization currently has about 700 members and windsports are growing in popularity and are an increasing boon for the local economy. Rollett is also on the Squamish Estuary Management Committee and reiterated what Buchanan and Tobe said about the committee not being looped in to the work being done on the dike and agreed members should have been notified in advance.

Rollett said members of his society help protect the estuary.  

“A direct benefit to the Wildlife Management Area is that the Windsports Society can control access and things that can arise where people are impacting wildlife within the estuary,” he told The Squamish Chief. “We have a rescue service that basically minimizes impact. We also advise anybody that kiteboards or windsports out there of the rules of the Wildlife Management Area: speed limits on the road, areas you can and can’t go into, what the Wildlife Management Area is and the ecosystems that they are doing their sports within.”

Buchanan questioned the true benefit of the sports to the estuary, but said the decommissioning of the training dike is a “win-win” for the sports enthusiasts as a new amenity is being planned as part of the oceanfront lands development and so a transition to the new area could be seamless for the windsports society. 

Rollet said a new facility at the oceanfront would not replace the Spit. 

Decommissioning the spit would “not stop windsport from going into that area and it will increase the amount of people who will be impacting that area because there will no longer be the rescue service.” 

“We have always thought, at SWS, that no matter what happens at the oceanfront, the Spit will always remain,” Rollet said, adding the Newport Beach site isn’t a great place to learn to kite due to the nature of the landscape. 

Possible solutions?

Heintzman doesn’t disagree that plans need to be made for the training dike.  

“The bigger picture and I think what John and Edith are really driving towards, and I agree with them, is how do we have a strategy to remove that training dike,” she said. “That bottom portion is not providing the flood protection. It is providing training for the river to keep the sediment away from the port and that type of thing. But we need to have a conversation about how do we move that and what are the alternatives.” 

Heintzman said the goal is to find a solution for all stakeholders in the area. 

“Is there a creative solution here that gives us increased habitat, increased environmental resilience, but still meets some of the goals of the windsport society, of the deep sea port, of some economic development?” she said. “That is where we are striving towards now – figuring out how we can do that, together."


Video below by John Buchanan of the issue from his point of view.