Gerald Harris and other volunteers are making progress towards introducing chum to the meandering city creek.
IN 1978, GERALD HARRIS wrote a short series of articles on Vancouver’s buried and long lost watercourses. The articles were eventually collected and published as a short book: Vancouver’s Old Streams, and offered by the Vancouver Aquarium in 1989. In the book, Harris weaves stories from fishers and “old-timers” with research from the Vancouver Archives into a compelling portrait of a city of salmonberry-lined pools and streams, laden with coho, chum and rainbow trout, including steelhead. Forty years later, it seems fitting he has become one of the chief caretakers and protectors of Bowker Creek and its watershed. Now, he’s set to try to bring spawning salmon back to the heart of Victoria.
Bowker is a small creek that stretches from its headwaters at the University of Victoria, down to its mouth in Oak Bay, near Glenlyon Norfolk School. In 2011, the Bowker Creek Initiative, a multi-jurisdictional effort, published the Bowker Creek Blueprint, a document endorsed by almost a dozen community associations and municipal governments (including the Friends of Bowker Creek Society [FBCS], with whom Harris volunteers). The blueprint sets forth a 100-year plan of action to support creek restoration.
Harris has volunteered with the FBCS since 2009. A tall, genial man, he worked as a fisheries technician, then a special education instructor until retirement. We walked the creek edge this winter, strolling from the Oak Bay Recreation centre along a daylighted section below Oak Bay High, then over a culverted portion near the Oak Bay Fire Hall, ending at the Monteith section of the creek. Passionate but a slow talker, he loves the teamwork that volunteering with the society allows. “I’m realizing that this work is moving along my consciousness and my philosophy,” he mused. He understands humans as beings within a larger ecology. “We’re ecosystems ourselves, and we’re part of larger ecosystems.” His volunteer work actualizes these life beliefs.
Gerald Harris holds up a sample of water taken from Bowker Creek
Bowker Creek has suffered under over 100 years of urbanization, including stream channel degradation, culverting of the creek waters, clearcutting of the watershed for development, runoff that pollutes the water, habitat loss, invasive species, and flooding, which causes erosion of the creek bank. It’s one of many creeks in the Victoria area that almost completely disappeared under a tide of development in the early 1900s. Part of the creek runs under the Hillside Mall shopping centre parking lot. Other areas have been daylighted but remain encased in artificially straightened and deepened corridors. All of these factors increase the creek’s flow speed, which results in less water soaking into the watershed, flooding and big variations in flow. In winter, the creek is too high; in summer, it’s too dry.
The Victoria area’s named watersheds. The Bowker Creek watershed is on the far right side (click to enlarge)
Harris’ work involves completing habitat assessments of various sections of the creek, restoring sections by removing invasive species such as yellow flag iris and planting native species like Skunk cabbage, cattail and willow, and monitoring flow and water quality. But this past year, he’s set his sights higher.
Harris is working with about 35 volunteers, scientists and with Derek Shrubsole, a teacher at Oak Bay High who has won a national teaching award for his work building stream ecology into his classes. Together, they want to reintroduce chum salmon into Bowker. They are currently completing a streamkeepers assessment of the creek. Gathering data to prove the stream has good water quality and sufficient natural habitat to support salmon is key to getting support from DFO. “It’s an interactive process,” he explains, “even applying [for funding] creates interest and will and opens doors.”
Harris is also working with Peninsula Streams Society, which helps to coordinate stream restoration and habitat conservation in the region. Peninsula streams “really know small urban and rural salmon streams. They know how to put funding together, and they have lots of friends in the community. They have ways of getting boulders or gravel” for restoration work.
The chum salmon’s lifecycle is ideal for the habitat, he tells me, “they’re a low hanging fruit, because they are in the ocean for the summer, when the flow gets low and the water heats up.” The chum return after the mid October rains wash pollution into and then out of the creek. Unlike coho, juvenile chum salmon also exit the stream for the ocean immediately after they hatch.
Harris hopes to introduce the first baskets of eggs into gravel in winter 2022 in the Monteith area of the creek. It sits downstream of a long culverted section of the creek, which passes under the Oak Bay Fire Hall parking lot. Salmon most likely wouldn’t brave the culvert. But below it, a soft-banked area, overhung with snowberry and red osier dogwood, burbles. Several years ago, a group of volunteers helped remove invasive species, planted a garden and now maintain the section.
“Teaching people about native gardening has been interesting,” he says. They’ve had to accustom themselves to a wilder look than much of Oak Bay cultivates. Deer also continue to be a problem—native bushes that should be 10 or more feet tall are small and heavily browsed. But Oak Bay Parks helps by bringing tree sections and mulch. Last fall at Monteith, they found invertebrates, including caddisfly and dobsonfly larvae, which aren’t found in poor water quality. “Findings like that are equivalent to a year’s worth of water sampling,” Harris says. Crayfish also live in the creek, as well as a small fish called three-spined stickleback.
A natural, healthy creek meanders. Its flow is moderated by soft banks, good permeability of surrounding soils and an ability to expand widthwise rather than shoot down a narrowed channel. The only reason Bowker continues to be a year round stream is because of the underlying geology, Harris tells me. Underlying the UVic and Gordon Head areas is a large swath of glacial gravel that came down from Howe Sound and across the Salish Sea during the last Ice Age. Called a drumelin, the gravel collects, holds and then slowly discharges this water, releasing it out of the sides of the hill UVic sits on. “Mystic Spring and Mystic Vale and, I suspect, Mount Douglas are all benefiting from this pile of water.”
Restoration of Bowker Creek can help control what happens to this water, says Harris. But people can also control what happens to rainwater the region (and the creek) receives over the winter. Impermeable surfaces, including pavement and building roofs, contribute to flooding, preventing the water from soaking in where it lands. Planting native species, using rain barrels and avoiding concrete can help a lot. Harris wants to start a campaign called “Does a raindrop feel wanted?” which would provide real time monitoring of flow rates and compare them to precipitation levels, so a game could actually be made of trying to slow a raindrop down as it moves from where it lands to the sea.
Before COVID, the Friends of Bowker Creek Society did some creekside concerts as a fundraiser. During one, they set up an art table where people could write a message on a “fish” (a shape cut out of a rhododendron leaf), then take their fish down to the creek and let it take their messages. “It was a way of giving people a connection to place,” Harris remembers. Now, he wants those fish to actually swim.
To support restoration on Bowker Creek and receive a tax deduction, donate to the Peninsula Streams Society and ask that the funds be directed towards Bowker Creek Restoration: https://peninsulastreams.ca/
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, which just entered its second printing. She is a PhD student, a lecturer in Geography, Canadian Studies, and Literature, at UVic and Camosun.
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