When a river isn’t really a river at all

The failure of upper levels of government to take responsibility for streams makes local action imperative.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

This hotly argued question could easily be settled by the federal government.

‘No,’ it would decree, without debate, and write its opinion into law.

It’s done that sort of thing before with questions we never thought would be asked.

For example, this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper unilaterally decided what a fish is, while eliminating habitat protection wording in Section 35 of the Fisheries Act, a move that will make all life in streams and lakes struggle harder to survive.

A lake, by the way, used to be a large fresh water body. Mr. Harper’s Mining Act (2002) changed that. Many former lakes are now “Schedule 2” or “tailings impoundment areas,” dumps for toxic mining effluent. Fish Lake near Williams Lake has temporarily escaped that fate.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that we have a new meaning for ‘stream’. We thought a stream was a brook, a river, a habitat for fish, Blaney Creek, or the North Alouette River, where I’m about to go kayaking on a warm, sunny day.

We’re dead wrong. Canadian law – which has superceded tradition and common sense under Mr. Harper’s watch, has redefined fish, habitat, and yes, streams. In the past – as opposed to ditches – streams were abundant, and all protected by law. According to Jeffrey Hutchings, a biology professor at Dalhousie University and Calgary biologist John Post, that’s changed and, consequently, so has the word’s meaning.

“Under the revised FA,” they write, in Fisheries, a journal of the American Fisheries Society, “fish that inhabit lakes, rivers, and streams that are not regularly visited by humans do not warrant protection. Humans are necessary to render a fish part of a fishery.”

So, no human visitors, no stream.  According to Mr. Hutchings, this edict will apply to 80 per cent of Canada’s streams and lakes, and put 71 endangered species at risk of extinction.

There are bass, sculpins, carp, northern pike minnow, and sticklebacks in the North Alouette River. A chum spawner crashes down noisily in front of me.

Amendments to the FA say all are of “no economic value,” some because most aren’t food fish, and the chum wouldn’t contribute significantly to a commercial or Aboriginal fishery. Fish has a new meaning.

As I move up river today, I pass beaver, river otters, ducks, a raccoon munching on a fresh water clam. But, as usual, I don’t see people. Does that mean, Mr. Harper, I wasn’t really here?

I don’t care what other people think, I tell myself as I paddle. It’s a line Mr. Harper leveled at his critics in Calgary recently. Most folks in Maple Ridge don’t care what he thinks, either, when it comes to streams.

This past summer, a cross-sectional district survey of developers, consultants, residents, and community groups showed 95 per cent backing for a district strategy to “identify, protect, and manage” the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems that support local habitats within the district’s boundaries. And 88 per cent want the district “to explore the creation of an official Environmental Review Committee.”

The failure of upper levels of government to take responsibility for streams makes local action imperative.

Protection of our streams rests on agriculture’s collaboration with municipalities and a citizen watchdog to keep our streams from joining the long list of those already destroyed around the world.

Unchecked urbanization and farming demands could soon render the mighty Colorado River dry below the Grand Canyon. The Cuyahoga in Ohio is covered with oil and chemicals that often ignite. After one event in 1969, Time Magazine dubbed it “the river that caught fire.” The Yellow River in China – used as a toilet – is red with sewage. Mark Twain’s beloved Mississippi is so covered with oxygen-sucking algae the mouth is called the Dead Zone.

But in Maple Ridge, our rivers are still natural wonders, even when they aren’t visited by humans.

 

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

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