By Matthew Shields
Water runs through history.
Maple Ridge is the name that was put on a glacier-scraped hill in September of 1874.
Around our town, rivers course and fall, wetlands flood and dry, and rain and snow plaster the mountain walls – bringing them down piece by piece.
Water shapes our community.
And we shape our waters.
Lines and nets sieve fishing channels; dikes delay floods, boats and bridges cross them, and dams hold them.
Trenches and pipes drain fallow fields and finished subdivisions.
We shape the water’s quality through pollution: a change in function, not form.
We shape water.
As few as 13,000 years ago, a massive ice sheet extended from the spine of the continental divide across subdued mountains and valleys to the Pacific Ocean, covering the entire Fraser Valley.
This glaciation physically depressed the terrain, and afterwards, even as the land rebounded – breathing again after being locked away for millennia – large portions of the present area of Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows were under water.
Inlets connected Yennadon and Pitt Lake directly with the ocean, and high ground like Sheridan Hill and the Ridge stood as islands.
Invigorated by melting ice in the interior, the water of the Fraser chewed away at the province’s highlands, delivering them in small pieces to the tides. Wave action and offshore currents distributed sediments around the basin of the Lower Mainland, forming the present lowlands and cutting Pitt Lake off from the sea.
The floodplains created were managed, worked, and harvested by First Nations people for thousands of years before colonial settlement.
But with the influx of Canadian and American settlers, the landscape of mixed land and water came under pressure to be drastically changed.
Diking projects began in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows area by the late 1890s and continued to expand in the 1950s.
These projects converted wetlands into pasture and cropland by keeping natural floods and tides at bay.
Some diking work was done speculatively – with companies buying land, diking it, draining it, and selling it to farmers.
The watery landscape of the lowlands was changed as agricultural settlement pushed north, reaching Pitt Polder by the 1960s.
With agriculture came concerns over runoff and impoundment. Despite precautions, fertilizer and chemical pesticides find their way into impounded ditches where they can persistently lower water quality.
In the uplands, a watershed moment was the construction of the Alouette dam between 1924 and 1926.
A project of the B.C. Electric Railway Company, the purpose of the dam was to raise water levels in the Alouette valley for diversion to powerhouses on the Stave River.
The municipality speculated that the lake could also be used as a reservoir for drinking water. The project did not proceed, because council was concerned with the financial burden and low summertime flows. Although it helped provide Fraser Valley homes with clean, electric light, the Alouette dam also came with environmental tolls. The salmon fishery on the Alouette was destroyed by separating down river and upriver habitats.
Today, the much smaller salmon run has been reintroduced, aided by the Allco Hatchery.
Since the 1970s, public focus has been put on protecting our waterways. Efforts to protect rivers and streams are ongoing, much like the waterways themselves.
Our municipalities have purchased riverside land to protect water from urban development.
The Alouette River Management Society, Katzie Slough Restoration Project, the Kanaka Education and Environmental Partnership Society and many more organizations engage the public in stewardship and water management, and work to reintroduce native species and natural flow regimes along our waterways.
On Earth Day, Saturday in Maple Ridge, take time to consider how water has shaped our community – and how we continue to shape our water.
Matthew Shields is an assistant at the Maple Ridge Museum and Community Archives.