Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Riparian Area Regulations in the Gulf Islands and on island farms

Sockeye salmon in the Adams River near Kamloops, BC

      This year British Columbia experienced the biggest salmon run in one hundred years and I had the good fortune of witnessing the return of millions of sockeye salmon to the Adams River this fall. It was estimated that 30 million plus Fraser River sockeye returned after two years in the Pacific, and the fish in the Adams River near Kamloops travelled up the Fraser and the Thompson before arriving at their final destination. There were so many fish the river had a red glow, and dense schools were observed near the shady shoreline of the river. It was incredible and inspiring to see.
      Just two years ago the first sockeye in one hundred years returned to the Coquitlam River, where I grew up. Coquitlam, or "Kwikwetlem" which means “red fish up river”, is close to Vancouver and a dam was built in 1914 to supply power and water to the growing community. Because of the dam, the fish could not return to Coquitlam Lake, water levels were affected, and development along the shoreline all had negative impacts on the fish and over time no salmon returned. Further damage by logging up Burke Mountain up to the late 1920's damaged many tributary streams feeding the river. My grandparents homesteaded on the mountain in the late 1920's, with such a stream running behind the house. Over the years the trees grew back on the mountain, the streams were protected with development setbacks, and First Nations and conservancy groups became interested in bringing the salmon back. A population of Kokanee lived in Coquitlam Lake, thought to be descendents of the sockeye who were trapped in the lake when the dam was built. The municipality and regional district were concerned about encouraging this project, because of changes to water quality if fish returned to the lake. But the proponents of the project won, and many Kokanee fry were collected from the lake and released into the river. Two years later the fish returned, and many were gathered by hand and placed into the lake for the process to be continued. The streams running down the river provide habitat for the bear, the deer and other wildlife and plants necessary for the ecosystem. 
Adams River
      One effort to protect the fisheries resource is the provincial Riparian Area Regulation, intended to replace the Streamside Protection Regulation. The biggest difference between the two is the shift in liability and expense onto landowners and developers. The riparian area is the area bordering on ditches, lakes and wetlands that links aquatic to terrestrial areas and contributes to fish habitat. The RAR directs local governments to either include riparian area provisions in zoning bylaws, or to exceed the requirements as they see fit. It is a little confusing, since it often is not used to just protect a known salmon bearing stream, but has been broadened to include introduced fish, like trout into Buck or Magic Lakes, and to included any regionally important fish. It is also different from the Riparian DPA that some LTC's have identified by plant features adjacent to watercourses. It can also be broadened if the qualified professional is instructed to do a simple assessment for fish potential, and not fish presence. In the Gulf Islands there are few streams that would qualify as fish bearing, especially given the period of time they are dry. However, with assessments done in the winter when streams are running there is a greater likelihood of determining potential to be fish bearing.
      On some islands several property owners became aware that the consultants hired by the Islands Trust to identify streams had trespassed on private property, something that is not authorized by the Riparian Area Regulation and is in fact illegal. The consultant's report provided the evidence; photographs clearly taken from inside the property boundaries. Trespassing on farms is a serious matter in that biosecurity on farms requires all visitors to identify themselves to the property owner, there are liability issues with bulls, rams, and other hazards, and according to legal opinion local governments and their consultants are not permitted to trespass on private land. Most landowners were not aware of the consultant coming to the island and did not receive a letter by either the Local Trust Committee or the consultant, even though the watershed boundaries for evaluation were known beforehand and the Local Trust knew who the affected landowners were.
      An opportunity to educate property owners about the RAR and what landowners can do to protect and enhance their riparian areas was lost. This is especially distressing since the local government is required under the RAR to educate the public, with the assistance of Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and the Ministry of the Environment. Also lost was an opportunity for the consultant and the LTC to learn from the landowners, who know their land best.
      On Mayne Island, the situation was corrected and the consultant carefully contacted landowners for permission to enter their property. If permission was not granted they used aerial photographs and other non invasive methods to gather data. Property owners often discussed their streams and ponds with the consultant, adding greatly to the quality of the final report and no doubt, to the intent of the Act.  Some property owners have taken things a step further and have hired their own consultant to do a more thorough assessment of their properties.
      Nobody would deny the importance of riparian areas to our watersheds, wildlife and plant life. Farms are often located in valley bottoms, and although farm activities are exempted from the RAR there are other regulations and programs in place to ensure that riparian areas on farms are protected and enhanced. For example, the Farmland Riparian Interface Stewardship Program administered by the BC Cattlemen Association has worked with over 140+ farm and ranch operations since 2004, and the Environmental Farm Plan includes assistance in restoring and enhancing riparian areas on farms. Water is critical to farming, and farmers have been responsible for many of the ponds created in the Gulf Islands, that provide water and also habitat.   

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