Along the Fraser: When there were no ditches, just streams and rivers

‘Everywhere we look, there’s new housing.’

(Jack Emberly/contributed)                                Nat Cicuto on Yorkson Creek with environmental consultant Julie Porter.

(Jack Emberly/contributed) Nat Cicuto on Yorkson Creek with environmental consultant Julie Porter.

“At one time there were no ditches, just streams and rivers,” Nat Cicuto, Langley.

Nat Cicuto says salmon are an integral part of his B.C. identify. Saving them as “a hunter and fisher,” and stream reconstruction consultant for developers is his life’s mission.

Cicuto’s two hats means he’s comfortable going on to building sites to tell workers – often fishermen – the ditch next to them supports the salmon they’ll catch on a river.

“They’re always surprised,” Cicuto says, “and ask what they can do to help.”

While president of the Yorkson Watershed Enhancement Society, the “watchdog” of Yorkson Creek in Langley’s growing Willoughby area, won the City’s 2012 Environmental Hero Award for helping ensure new row and townhomes along 78th Svenue are compatible with coho and chum that spawned in large numbers here 30 years ago, but disappeared by year 2000.

Cicuto says some fish have returned to the creek in the past few years, but not yet in 2017.

“They’re late, or not coming,” he tells Environmental Consultant Julie Porter and me over coffee.

Everywhere we look, there’s new housing.

“Because we envisioned massive development in Willoughby over the next 15 to 20 years,” says Cicuto, “we brought the city’s attention to problems – old culverts incorrectly built, a water management system based on civil rather than bio-engineering, improper water filtration from subdivisions.”

YWES is a small group of aging volunteers with a big challenge. Like similar groups, it often fails to get the respect and support it needs from DFO and cities.

“We rely heavily on our planners and administrators to do their job, but what we often see is a minimal approach to get sign-off,” says Cicuto.

“There’s often no consultation with stream stewardship groups that spend thousands of volunteer hours working in these streams. We have to work extremely hard to have our voice heard and participate along the way. Very few designers, planners, developers, and owners reach out to us for input. We’re left reading public hearing announcements in the local newspaper, and posted rezoning signs on properties.”

Consultation with stream keepers has paid off here. Today, Cicuto will point out two flat bottomed culverts built to benefit Yorkson fish. Salmon spawn on gravel – away from predators and human harassment – on the down side of pre-cast cement buffers, and move upstream through weirs.

“In 2004, 16 coho came back,” says Cicuto, “and in 2016, we counted 50. Our goal is to see between 500 and 1,500, the historical number in this watershed.”

The ditch along 76th Street is another improvement. Indigenous plants, and strategically placed rocks and water breaks make it function more like a stream with natural filters. It’s a model to follow everywhere.

“Remember – at one time – says Cicuto, “there were no ditches, just streams, rivers and brooks.”

Nat’s truck proudly sports a Canadian flag. It resembles once-ubiquitous DFO vehicles parked along B.C. streams.

“There was a time a fisheries truck, and threats of heavy fines, struck fear in the general public,” laments Nat. “Now, nobody’s looking after the precious resource that identifies us as British Columbians, except streamkeepers. In 18 years, I’ve rarely seen the DFO. Last week, I asked them to come out and inspect a site for a sediment issue. They told me, “Unless there were a lot of dead fish rolling upside down, we leave it to the communities. DFO’s role is minimal.”

Residential development lines 76 Avenue up to 206th Street, the height of land. Water flows downhill from hobby farms here. They’re slated for rezoning; homes for another 80,000 people in Langley. To our right is a few acres of swampy bush. To the left, a channel with thimblefuls of water.

“But, that’s not just a swamp,” I suggest, “and this trickle isn’t a ditch.”

“No,” says Cicuto.

The bog – a source of water and natural filtration system – and ditch are the start of Yorkson Creek.

“It will gain volume as it flows to the Fraser River,” he says.

The development it meets will impact fish.

“With the right storm water management design and engineering planned here,” says Cicuto, “we’ll upgrade stream habitat within the developments. There’ll be substrate gravels installed in ditches, filtration measures, removal of obstructions like old culverts installed incorrectly. The end result will increase the salmon runs; provide habitat right to the back yards of people who live in these row and townhomes.”

A week passes.

“Have you seen any spawners?” I ask Nat.

“Not yet,” he says. “I’m hoping. I’ve seen them as late as January.”

Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.