Put farmers before fish: Park

Pitt Meadows property owner opposes slough restoration project

Lina Azeez of the Watershed Watch Society led municipal council candidates on a tour of the Katzie Slough.

Lina Azeez of the Watershed Watch Society led municipal council candidates on a tour of the Katzie Slough.

The Pitt Meadows landowner whose property is crucial to development of the North Lougheed Corridor has come out as critical of local politicians, and their support of the Katzie Slough restoration project.

Pitt Meadows farmers stand to lose a critical source of irrigation and drainage to a Katzie Slough restoration project, says Bill Park, adding that municipal politicians who spoke so favourably about the slough restoration project during their campaign need to pump the brakes, and put farmers first.

Mayor John Becker and all the members of his election team toured the slough with representatives of Watershed Watch during the campaign, and all voiced their support for the restoration plan.

Park owns land that is critical to the proposed SmartCentres commercial development in the North Lougheed Corridor. He owns about 90 acres, and the developer is interested in purchasing about half of it.

His interest in this issue has nothing to do with that transaction, he asserts.

“I’m not doing this for any personal gain,” he said. “The slough doesn’t touch the land anywhere near where SmartCentres would be buying it.”

The city envisions a mixed-employment and highway commercial development for a 50-hectare site near the corner of Lougheed and Harris Road – zoning that includes everything from a business hotel, as well as more shopping with big-box anchor stores.

SmartCentres, which owns a large chunk of land in the corridor and bills itself as Canada’s largest developer and operator of “unenclosed shopping centres,” claims the development would bring 600,000 square feet of new retail commercial space and two million square feet of mixed employment uses to the city.

The slough does not run through the property, but meanders along the proposed site’s western border.

Park said he was motivated to speak up because he didn’t like the position local politicians were taking on the issue.

“They don’t give a damn about farmers,” he said. “If there’s salmonid species in this slough, you can’t farm the way we have for 100 years.”

First, the slough is essential to Pitt Meadows farmers. His family has owned a farm at the corner of Lougheed Highway and Harris Road for 110 years.

“If you don’t drain the land in Pitt Meadows, you can’t farm it,” he said.

What’s more, the slough is critical for irrigation. With increased production of cranberries, which are harvested in flooded fields, the demand for water is higher than ever.

Park is best known as the former fire chief, but he was also a dairy farmer for 30 years, and was the chairman of the B.C. Dairy Producers.

“Once you find salmon in your watercourse, the ballgame is changed,” he warns.

There are rules about when farmers can spread manure, what they can use, setbacks and more. He said council has to get all the details before it decides to make the slough salmon habitat.

He said his property’s value as farmland is already diminishing, and more restrictions would make it worse.

“Why bother saving farmland if you put more and more restrictions on farmers?” he asks.

Park said he has been approached by about 15 parties who are interested in purchasing his land – all developers, and not one a farmer.

A plan to financially compensate farmers for being stewards of stream habitat is being looked at.

The city can ask farmers to pay to replace the slough’s pumps, but can it fairly ask farmers to pay millions extra for fish friendly pumps, he asks.

Park, 64, fished in the slough when he was seven years old.

“We used to catch a lot of catfish, bullheads and carp,” he recalls, but contends it wasn’t known as a good place to lure a salmon.

Scott Magri, who launched the slough restoration project, was shocked anyone would consider the slough’s current condition acceptable.

“I’m not going to leave it just as a ditch – that’s not going to happen,” said Magri, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for city council.

He said the water in the slough doesn’t move because it is overgrown with vegetation, and farmers should want to irrigate with cleaner water.

“All of the pesticides these farmers are using just sits there – what farmer would want to suck that water out of there?”

Magri has butted heads with farmers over the slough remediation project before, but sees a lot of common interest.

“When I first started this, I came up with a plan so that it wouldn’t impact farmers. I want them to get involved,” he said.

“It’s the early stages of this project – there’s a way to do it.”

Answering Park’s suggestion that the slough has primarily been habitat only for bottom feeders and coarse fish, Magri said there is a lot of local anecdotal evidence that there were salmon species in the slough historically.

Lina Azeez of Watershed Watch said the slough would be important overwintering habitat for coho salmon. While some salmon fry species hatch and immediately swim for the ocean, coho spend a winter in warmer waters, feeding and growing, then migrate to the Pacific Ocean. Traditionally, that was the main function of the slough for salmonids. But it and other streams in the Fraser Valley have been lost to the coho.

“There used to be a lot of them, but a lot are like the Katzie Slough, and a lot have been drained or have disappeared,” said Azeez.

Restoring that overwintering habitat is the goal.

“We’re not trying to create a spawning creek there,” she said.

Coun. Bruce Bell, who serves as council’s voice at the agricultural advisory committee, agreed with Park’s assertion that farmers have to be a prime consideration in any initiatives that impact the slough.

“Bill brings up a good point we should definitely look at,” he said. “This council is going to listen to everybody.”

Bell said the notion that there is a technological solution to the problems of the polluted slough may be optimistic.

“I’ve already been told that ‘fish friendly pumps’ is a misnomer,” he said.

Adding gates and more modern pumps is a long-term project, and Bell estimates the time frame for these improvements might be 10 years.

However, he said the slough definitely needs to be “cleaned out,” and invasive species removed.

“At the moment, it’s not even draining properly.”

In Whatcom County, farmers are asked to leave setbacks of 10 to 55 meters from streams, but they are compensated financially by senior governments.

Fraser Valley dairy farmer Detmar Schwichtenberg, who is also co-chair of the Fraser Valley Watersheds Coalition, is investigating a similar scheme for B.C.

Monica Pearson, co-chair of the coalition, said the plan would be based on the principle of ecosystem goods and services – a term that acknowledges society benefits from a healthy environment. Because farmers control a lot of land along streams, so-called ecosystem services are managed by farmers.

“We’ve been very interested in this idea, because we recognize farmers can have a positive impact, but it’s a challenge for them,” she said.

Magri has done research on urban rivers, their value, and the loss of those that have been literally paved over.

“People are realizing we can’t do this anymore,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘the Katzie Slough is destroyed – it’s just a drainage ditch.’ That’s unacceptable.”

“Everyone’s got to work together to fix the damage we did – that’s the bottom line.”