Fraser River gravel removal is permitted under the auspices of a flood protection fiction is nothing more than a modern-day gold rush to feed the insatiable needs of the Lower Mainland construction industry.
That premise isn't a new one but is the focus of the 20th book in publisher New Star
Book's Transmontanus series of short books, which focus on places in B.C.
In Sturgeon Reach, authors Terry Glavin and Ben Parfitt describe the geological genesis of the Fraser Valley and the Fraser River over thousands of years.
"Despite hundreds of thousands of tonnes of gravel that have been excavated from the river's gravel bars, the threat of flooding had been reduced not one iota," the authors write.
Sturgeon Reach is a name given by some to the stretch of the river that runs by Chilliwack, from Hope to Pitt Meadows.
More than 30 different species of fish are found in this gravel reach. The desire to protect the spawning beds of salmon, sturgeon and other species has long come into conflict with the river's natural tendency to swell in the spring and flood the land.
While 1894 was the largest freshet since Europeans arrived, the population wasn't here for the rising rivers to have nearly the impact that the less severe 1948 flood did. This event triggered the construction of flood-control infrastructure in the form of 600 kilometres of dikes, 100 pump stations and 400 flood-control boxes.
"And all of this new infrastructure required gravel," the authors write.
Chilliwack MLA John Les has long pushed for the gravel removal as a flood protection measure. And some local Sto: lo bands along the river, including Chief Clem Seymour of Seabird Island, have said gravel removal is necessary to stop the loss of land to erosion.
Les has been both passionate about the need for gravel removal for flood protection and has also denied the ecological concerns.
"Those who suggest this is destructive of habitat are really just inventing scenarios and the one species that seems to be ignored in all of this is the human species," he told the Times in 2007.
Les also maintains that gravel removal is not about feeding the construction industry is nothing more than a public safety measure.
The authors contend, however, that the unquenchable thirst for gravel is only measured by the ecological consequences. For this reason, a "higher purpose" was created as a sort of rationalization: The threat of flood.
"The gravel was undoubtedly there in abundance, but the ecological consequences of removing it in any quantity, without robust planning and risk assessment, were dire," they write. "So, if commercial exploitation of the lower river's rich gravel bars and islands were to take place, it had to be justified in the name of some higher purpose.
"That higher purpose became the emotionally charged issue of flood control."
The "over-hyped" flood threat of 2007-a hype that swept the media up-did cause some bank overflowing that frightened those who remembered what happened in 1971, 1948 and 1894.
In the gravel reach, the beds are aggrading (rising) each year because of the nature of how the river flows out of the confined rocks of the Fraser Canyon into the broad valley.
But importantly, the authors write, this is not a "neat, steady accumulation."
What is created in the give-and-take of channel flow and gravel aggradation is exceptional habitat for fish to lay their eggs.
Before 2007, a gravel removal project near Chilliwack in the river caused the death of between 1.5 and 2.25 million pink salmon hatchlings. The debacle at Big Bar in 2006 resulted when a construction causeway was built in the river for gravel removal.
"The dynamic events that give birth to these bars and islands also raise serious questions about government policy that encourages gravel extraction operations of the sort that were carried out at Spring Bar," they write.
UBC scientist Michael Church suggested some gravel extraction should occur, but no more than arrived each year.
The Spring Bar project "was potentially double what the river would deposit along a hundred-kilometre stretch in a full year."
And does aggregate removal in the Gravel Reach, even at the level of 2.26 million cubic metres, really reduce flood risks? "A study commissioned by federal fisheries officials and published at the midpoint of the controversial mining program said no."
Freshets continue to threaten Chilliwack and the Fraser Valley, gravel continues to accumulate in the reach and the demand for rock for infrastructure only grows.
© Copyright 2013