First Nation concerns could derail controversial provincial plans this winter to extract gravel from the lower Fraser River.
Contractors for Emergency Management B.C. were poised to begin extracting 230,000 cubic metres of gravel at Gill and Hamilton bars downstream of Agassiz to reduce flood risks.
But gravel extraction "has been halted due to concerns by the Cheam Indian Band" in Rosedale and may have to be postponed for another year, said Tim Preece, flood-protection program manager with EMBC.
"The sediment removal work on the Fraser has a limited window of February/March due to fish habitat and rising water level impacts," he said. "The delay may mean that sediment removal work on the Fraser might not be undertaken this year."
The Cheam band, which has been involved in past gravel removals, wrote a letter to EMBC on Feb. 4, 2013, citing the government's lack of consultation and "failure to take into account the knowledge of our people and the potential impacts of the proposed extraction on our aboriginal title and rights."
The letter, signed by band councillor Sidney Douglas, states that prior to Carol Loski taking over as director of the province's flood-management program "we participated in the sediment removal as did other First Nations."
Gravel removal has been a contentious issues for years in the lower Fraser River. There had been no removals for the past two years.
Critics charge that the extraction is being done mainly to provide aggregate for construction, has little impact on reducing flood risk, and puts the rearing habitat of juvenile chinook salmon and other fish at risk.
Marvin Rosenau, a former provincial fisheries scientist who now teaches in BCIT's fish, wildlife, and recreation program, said that cancellation of the gravel-extraction works is good news, if it proves to be the case.
But he stressed the need for a comprehensive gravel management plan with public input and computer hydraulic models supporting the government claim that gravel removal reduces flood risk.
"These are juvenile salmon rearing habitats they are destroying." said Rosenau, who is also a member of the Fraser River Gravel Stewardship Committee. "These big elevated gravel bars are hot spots for chinook during the spring freshet."
As for the Cheam concerns, Rosenau said the first nation clearly wants an economic role in any Fraser gravel removal in their territory.
The federal auditor-general's office in 2009 delivered a scathing report on Ottawa's efforts to protect fish habitat, including a lack of monitoring, enforcement and accountability, and cited Fraser River gravel removal.
The report by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development on behalf of the auditor-general upheld the concerns of conservation groups about gravel removal, saying it had killed millions of juvenile salmon and failed to meet the province's stated objective of reducing flood risk.
In 2006, improper construction of a causeway for accessing one gravel removal site resulted in a side channel downstream drying up, exposing salmon nests and killing up to 2.25 million pink young salmon.
Last August, Stephen Harper's Conservative government said it had washed its hands of environmental assessments of nearly 500 projects in B.C. - including gravel extraction on the lower Fraser - as a result of a revised Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
Said Rosenau: "This is one more nail in the coffin of what's been happening across B.C."