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Work preparations for Squamish Spit removal soon to come

The preparations will be underway sometime this month, says Squamish River Watershed Society.
The Squamish Spit.

Preparations to modify a section of the Squamish Spit will soon be underway.

On Jan. 12, the Squamish River Watershed Society announced in a news release the work will be starting this month.

A key step has also been fulfilled in the process, the society said. The organization has been granted a permit from Transport Canada, pursuant to the Canadian Navigable Waters Act.

"The fact that we got the permission from Transport Canada was really important to give confidence to the project, and, also, we needed it to proceed," Patricia Heintzman, spokesperson for Squamish River Watershed Society, told The Chief on Jan. 14.

The watershed society also added approvals under the Water Sustainability Act are also in the works, and the organization is hoping for the green light in the next few weeks.

The aim of the project will be to remove the midsection of the Spit up to the yellow gates.

It will leave the island at the southernmost launching area of the berm intact, which kiters will have to access by boat.

The project's goal is to break up the barrier separating juvenile salmon from the waters of the Squamish Estuary. Previously, the creation of the artificial berm in the 1970s has been blamed for the dwindling numbers of fish in the area.

Heintzman told The Chief that the first step of the preparations will involve flattening the surface of the Spit so heavy trucks can travel up and down.

Fencing will be erected just north of the yellow gate.

When work does actually begin, Heintzman said excavators will be working northward, starting from the southernmost tip.

Sediment and dirt dug up from the project will be deposited at the former BC Rail properties, where it will be used by locals who need fill.

Revetment work will be done on what will become the launching island of the Spit, which is where kiters will continue to be able to recreate.

That kind of work will involve putting rocks on the north side of the soon-to-be island to prevent erosion. It will create a more gradual slope to help make it more accessible, Heintzman said.

At first, about 300 metres will be removed, she said. The effects of this removal will be monitored for months, and, if there are no adverse impacts on the environment or the nearby port, the watershed society will continue to remove more portions of the Spit.

If everything seems fine after around six to eight months, crews will go ahead and remove the full 900 metres of the berm, she said.

If there are negative impacts, the society will do what it can to address them, though Heintzman said it's not clear at this point what that might look like.

It could take the form of debris nets to protect the terminal, or in the very worst-case scenario, possible restoration of the Spit.

As far as doing what's best for the salmon, though, a PhD candidate from the University of Washington, said there is one option that's most desirable.

"My short answer is removal is the solution," said Ashlee Abrantes, who studies Environmental Science and Policy.

Assuming that it's done properly and sediment isn't dumped into the estuary, it's the best thing to do for the fish, she said.

Typically, young salmon require time to acclimate to saltwater, and since the Spit funnels them out to sea before they have a chance to get used to that environment, they die.

"[Adjusting to saltwater] doesn't happen overnight, so there's this inevitable, immediate death, because if you literally essentially can't breathe, you can't live," Abrantes said.

However, the estuary, where salt and freshwater mix, previously provided the fish a chance to get used to ocean conditions without shocking them.

Abrantes said that Squamish is not alone with respect to its situation regarding how the salmon interface with man-made structures.

"It's a lot more than just berms. There are jetties, and dams are the big new thing, because they're typically the bigger structures," she said.

"All these man-made artificial barrier structures that we've put up — we're realizing that the due diligence wasn't done when they were installed and when they were built. And we've seen the fallout, but now it's [coming] to the point where...we're losing species left and right."

Windsports enthusiasts recognized the project's importance but expressed some disappointment in how the process came together.

"Over the last year, we have had many talks with the Squamish Nation, and we realize why the restoration of the salmon habitat is such a critical matter to them and the SWS fully supports the Squamish Nation in this reconciliation project," said Nikki Layton, president of the Squamish Windsports Society.

"The Squamish Windsports Society (SWS) is disappointed that we weren't able to work with the proponents of the CERP [Central Estuary Restoration Project] to create a solution that could be implemented simultaneously with the removal of the training berm."

However, she wrote, despite their disappointment and the challenges the new Spit configuration will pose, the society is happy to have use of the newly-created island.

"Our goal is to provide safe access for the windsport community, to the amazing winds that Squamish is known for around the world. We have some concerns, and are currently still in discussions with the CERP team, regarding the safety of the areas we hope to utilize for our boat drop off/pick up area," Layton said.

The society is working on a plan to enable people to have access to the island for a nominal cost. 

It will be a challenge, as river flow, changing tides, winds and gear will all have to be accounted for.

"This is a significant undertaking that will involve major costs and will require grants or other sources of funding that have yet to be determined," she said.

 Layton also said that according to estimates made by the society, windsports bring in about $3.5 million a year.

She wrote: "The tourism impact of windsports is a major component of tourism in Squamish and brings in a significant amount of money to the community every year. The District of Squamish has been involved in the discussions surrounding the removal of the training berm and recently has been co-hosting a Vision Committee to bring together various stakeholders in this area. While we appreciate their involvement, we have concerns that the District doesn't fully appreciate how important tourism is to Squamish generally, and specifically the impact and value of windsports in the community."

On average, she said, there are 881 members of the windsports society.

About 26%, or 230 people, are from Squamish. Vancouverites, who make up about 200 members, are the second most represented group in the society.

On the tourism front, the president of Tourism Squamish told The Chief that his organization recognized the importance of helping the salmon..

Kirby Brown said he appreciated the meaning that the structure has for many in the community, including himself.

"It is a truly special place, but that comes after we focus on the immediate need for habitat restoration," said Brown. "So I think that's where we're at."

However, the organization can help facilitate efforts between the affected parties to get people back out to the Spit in the future, he said.

Brown said there may be a way to reconnect some form of bridge system out there.

"What I know is that's not going to be inexpensive," he said. 

"I doubt that you'd be able to afford a vehicular structure, but a pedestrian one — maybe one day — akin to some of the piers you see even in the Lower Mainland would be possible. But only if there is a general community consensus that that's where the time, energy and resources should be spent."

At the moment, there are a lot of other priorities in front of this town as well, he said.

"There's just a lot more questions than answers right now, but what I do appreciate is the opportunity and the pressing need to rehabilitate and give those [salmon] every chance they can have right now," said Brown.

"What is tourism without an active and robust ecology to support it? It's an age of prioritization and I think the priority is right on this one."


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