The McKechnie Road pump station at the Alouette River in Pitt Meadows is chewing up fish – both native and invasive species, says local environmentalist Jack Emberly.
He has photos of dozens of dead fish, between 500 and 1,000, that had been caught up in the machinery during a recent period of high water, which he recently presented to Pitt Meadows council. The fish get caught up on the screen, then they drop on to the concrete floor, after which they were taken to the dump by city crews.
“Do you think it’s morally right to take all those fish to the garbage dump?” Emberly asked.
Emberly is a columnist for The News, and has spoken previously about the design of the pump station which regulates water levels in the Katzie Slough by pumping water into the South Alouette River.
Earlier this month, Emberly learned of a Pitt Meadows resident who saw the piles of dead fish on Feb. 1 and tried to carry them back to water. The same scenario happened a year ago.
He notes that the particular pump at that location has been operating since 1999. “So, you figure out how many fish they have killed.”
Emberly filed a complaint with Fisheries and Oceans Canada on Feb. 3.
“This is first time they’ve actually said what fish were down there because they do not normally investigate this sort of thing at all,” Emberly said. A fisheries officer said that five species of fish were found, two of which were native species, pikeminnow and peamouth chub.
Emberly made a presentation at Feb. 11 meeting of Pitt Meadows council.
“It’s illegal to desroy native fish. Yes, they are not all carp. They are not the dreaded invasives used to justify fish kills here,” Emberly told council.
But in an e-mail Wednesday, Fisheries says the slough is a man-made channel with limited, if any access, for salmonids (trout or salmon), although there are invasive and other freshwater species in the slough.
“The water in this canal often has poor water quality for fish (high temperatures and lack of oxygen), which can be lethal to fish,” Fisheries spokesperson Leri Davies said Wednesday.
Fisheries also pointed out that the Alouette River Management Society set traps up and downstream of the flood gates last July 2019 – and no salmon or trout were captured.
“It is possible that, during high water events, out-going Alouette smolts may get trapped at these locations, however, to date, there is no indication that has happened at this location,” Davies said.
The pump station is operated by Pitt Meadows to provide flood protection and drains primarily agricultural land that discharges to the South Alouette River, Davies said.
Fisheries noted that the screen prevents invasive milfoil from entering the pump station and dead fish sometimes collect there, raising public concerns.
Species affected to date are not salmon but include invasive non-natives like sunfish, carp, bullhead and oriental weather loach.
Fishery officers routinely check this pump station during spring run-off to monitor potential risks to fish, and in particular, risks to salmonids, Davies added.
Invasive fish can’t be moved to another body of water.
But Emberly said there will be salmon in the river during the spring. “We know that there are salmonids in the system,” he said.
“But the pump is indiscrimate, it will kill them all,” he said.
Mayor Bill Dingwall said Pitt Meadows has a complex diking system with each pump costing up to $10 million.
Emberly said that the pump design is antiquated, which hasn’t been allowed in Europe, for years because “it kills fish” and “increases the potential for flooding.”
And keeping water levels in Katzie Slough low just generates weed growth and improve conditions for invasives.
“The argument by Pitt Meadows that they are protecting salmon from invasive fish this way is ludicrous. They’re making the slough unsuitable for salmon and ideal for invasives,” Emberly said.
However, Dingwall said later that pumps currently operating in North America are not fish friendly. Costs for fish friendly pumps are about double conventional ones, he added. As well, it’s harder to replace the motors of fish-friendly pumps, he added. The five large pumps in Pitt Meadows are important for flood prevention.
Only one pump station, on Sturgeon Slough, is in the process of becoming fish friendly, allowing fish to pass back and forth without harming them. A pump for that location still hasn’t arrived from England.
The city is also looking at better using trash racks that keep fish and debris from entering the pumps.
As well, invasive species of fish is a big issue in Pitt Meadows. “We don’t want invasive fish into our natural waters, into the Alouette River, the Pitt River and the Fraser River and cost is always a factor that has to be looked at,” Dingwall said.