Activist Frank Kwak (left) and researcher Otto Langer are concerned gravel removal is harming Fraser River fish for no good reason.
Is the multimillion-dollar gravel extraction program on the Fraser River actually saving lives – preventing a devastating flood, as government officials claim? Or is it just padding the pockets of a lucky few and causing irreparable harm to a fragile ecosystem?
When I meet Frank Kwak, he’s in his backyard planting dahlias, wearing black polyester running pants tucked into a pair of gumboots. Screened on the back of his white T-shirt is a leaping largemouth bass. He’s agreed to take me out to the Fraser River and show me Gill Bar, a kilometre-long gravel bar near Chilliwack that’s become the latest focal point in a decade-long battle over gravel mining in the Fraser. After we get into my car, Kwak pulls out an unpeeled orange and an energy bar. “Sorry about this,” he says. “I haven’t gotten around to breakfast yet.”
Kwak, 62, is a busy man. The president of the Fraser Valley Salmon Society, he sits on “well over 20” committees dealing with sport-fishing issues and river habitat. Ten years ago, he took early retirement so he and his wife could move to Chilliwack, where through a local church they worked with refugees from Kosovo and later launched their own Christian ministry to feed the city’s homeless and hungry. A fly fisherman, Kwak soon found that the valley was, if not an angler’s Canaan, at least a decent place for a retiree to enjoy weekends fishing for steelhead trout and salmon. But over the next decade, his attempt at a relaxing hobby led him into the fraught politics of fish and water. His homeless ministry is now a reduced-fee catering company, and these days he makes fewer hot meals than conference calls.
- Video: Man vs Nature in the Fraser River
Is irresponsible gravel removal from
the Fraser River jeopardizing the fish habitat?
Kwak downplays his knowledge of stream ecology and fish habitat. “I don’t know really very much,” he says. “I’m just a grunt and a willing participant.” Still, Kwak has been known to get his hands in the gravel, which at least once has landed him on the front page. In 2006, while exploring a channel island called Big Bar, he found thousands of exposed, dried-up “redds”: scooped-out nests of fertilized eggs left in the fall by spawning salmon. An access road built to the bar by a local gravel company had cut off the spawning channel and dried it up, killing an estimated two million pink salmon fry. It was one of the largest documented fish kills in recent B.C. history. The pink kill at Big Bar was big news at the time for being a major botch but also because it raised old questions about gravel operations in the Fraser – questions that remain unsettled.
Gravel extraction in the Chilliwack area of the river has been going on by private aggregate companies for decades. Since 2004 the operations have increased in size and number, ostensibly to protect $6-billion worth of homes, businesses and public infrastructure in the Fraser Valley from a New Orleans-style flood – like the granddaddy Fraser flood of 1894 or the one that devastated the region in 1948. While private companies are still mining the gravel, their operations are now approved and conducted under the auspices of Emergency Management B.C. (EMBC), part of the provincial Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. But a growing number of biologists, local First Nations and river hydraulics experts – as well as sport fishermen like Kwak – question the official story of flood protection and worry that the program is really a means of subsidizing a local resource industry. By framing gravel mining as an “emergency” public safety work, say critics, the government is quashing public input and ecological review – and using up limited flood-protection funds.
“I’m pretty well convinced this is a gravel grab that has very little to do with flood protection,” says Kwak as we step out of the car. “It’s done under the guise of flood protection, but the gravel is being removed for profit. Who all is profiting from it I’m not sure.”
Gravel is not sexy. The fortunes of B.C.’s $300-million-a-year aggregate industry – sand, gravel and crushed rock – go undiscussed at cocktail parties, despite our blind dependence on them. Gravel is as basic to modern society as flour is to bread baking; it’s a main ingredient for roads, home foundations, sidewalks, schools, bridges and hospitals. Construction and road maintenance projects require about 54 million tonnes of aggregate a year, an average of 12 tonnes for each person in B.C. The Metro Vancouver market alone is valued at $135 million, consuming about 15 million tonnes of gravel and sand every year – roughly equal to the weight of about 158,000 Boeing 757s – with most of that gravel coming from the Sechelt area on the Sunshine Coast.
The Fraser Valley market, on the other hand, is much smaller, with about 800,000 tonnes of sand and gravel (plus another 600,000 tonnes of crushed rock) consumed annually. In a market this size, the exposed gravel bars of the 65-kilometre stretch of the Fraser River between Mission and Hope – known as the “gravel reach” or the Heart of the Fraser – start to look pretty appealing: if costs for building access bridges and roads to the bars are covered, as they often are, by the province under the EMBC flood protection program, gravel is relatively clean and easy to access.
The reach is where all the gravel carried by the river is deposited in a braided alluvial fan – gravel that originates from the weathering rock of the Fraser Canyon above Hope or is delivered into the Fraser by mountain streams and landslides. The reach is also prime habitat for 30 species of fish – including steelhead, pikeminnow, shiners and endangered white sturgeon – and the passageway for salmon headed to and from their spawning beds. Droves of pink and chum salmon that were born in its well-washed gravel come here to die: millions of chum and up to 10 million humpbacked pinks in alternate years.
Otto Langer is a retired fisheries biologist who spent 32 years with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, colloquially known as the DFO (after its former name, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans). Like many others concerned about fish habitat in the Fraser, he questions the motives for gravel extraction. “The program as it’s presently being sold is misleading, and there’s obviously more than a flood-control agenda being pushed at this time,” says Langer, who has spent a good part of his retirement years compiling a massive file on gravel extraction in the Fraser River. He and Marvin Rosenau (of BCIT’s fish, wildlife and recreation program), along with John Werring of the David Suzuki Foundation, the B.C. Wildlife Federation and other groups, have formed the Fraser River Gravel Stewardship Committee to lobby the government on the impact of gravel mining in the Fraser.
In a review of the DFO’s role in Fraser gravel extraction released last March, Langer notes that gravel mining in B.C.’s rivers has had a long and occasionally smelly history. Over the past century, construction companies and others in the Fraser Valley, writes Langer, “have often extracted the clean gravels from salmon spawning streams as a local source of cheap aggregate for roads and making concrete for construction projects. . . . Mining gravel from the Coquitlam River in the Lower Mainland destroyed much of the river’s habitat and drove a healthy run of pink salmon into extinction. Indeed, some 40 years ago, construction workers in the area complained that concrete made from Coquitlam River gravels gave off a bad rotten salmon smell due to the large numbers of salmon eggs in the concrete.” On the nearby Fraser, extractions continued up until about 1998 when the DFO asked for and “largely got” a moratorium on gravel mining – not completely, as small “experimental” removals continued – pending an overall management plan for salmon and fish habitat in the river.
But the pressure to reopen it was persistent. A report on aggregate supply for the provincial Ministry of Employment and Industry in 1996 noted a dwindling aggregate supply in the Fraser Valley and thus “increasing demand on Upper Fraser Valley sources, particularly the Fraser River gravel bars possessing high-quality gravel.” In 2002, after a four-year break, the government allowed mining to resume.
It’s a sunny day in late April, and as Frank Kwak and I drive over the dike we can see the river shining through the cottonwoods. We park and Kwak leads me back onto the dike, an elevated gravel road set back 150 metres from the river. Five minutes later, he spots the place he’s looking for and we make our way back down. We wade through the knee-high grass to the riverbank and see a seal poke its head out of the water near the shore. “If they say there’s not fish in here, well,” says Kwak, “obviously there is.”
The seal looks at us with something like amusement, but Kwak isn’t smiling. The seal is about 80 metres from Gill Bar, which is one of about a dozen bars mined for gravel in the past 10 years and the largest extraction site of 2010. In February K & L Contractors Inc., a local gravel company, was given a “Section 9” permit by the B.C. Ministry of Environment to work “in and about a stream,” allowing the company to mine 185,000 cubic metres of gravel from the bar, about 310,000 tonnes. More than 10,000 truckloads were hauled from the bar on a tight 10-week timeline; K & L had to beat the rising meltwaters that now covered most of the bar.
Rivers are wild; they can be tamed but they remain unpredictable. The big flood of 1948 is still vivid in the memories of Fraser Valley elders, and the stories trouble anyone who lives in the area, especially those who have stood on the dikes during spring thaw and watched the river roar by. Following another flood scare in 2007, the province agreed to add $100 million to a $60-million, 10-year investment by the federal government aimed at improving area dikes and instituting other flood-protection measures. But residents are still nervous and want to believe that authorities are doing everything they can to protect their homes, families and businesses. That is why, Kwak says, EMBC’s gravel extraction program has held such popular appeal.
“It’s a pretty positive move on behalf of provincial and federal leaders to tell a community they’re doing everything they can to prevent Chilliwack from flooding in a freak flood. Can it happen? Well, of course,” he says. “And so for Joe Q. Public, if his ministers or MLAs tell him that there is a chance the river will flood someday – and that what we are doing and what we’ll continue to do is protect your property by removing gravel from the river – he’ll be quite happy to hear that. If you own a house in Chilliwack and could care less about fish and there’s a one in a thousand chance of a flood, you’re going to say, ‘Well, let’s do it.’”
It’s not only Kwak who has questions about the program and its raison d’être. In early May, in an exchange at the B.C. legislature, Delta South MLA Vicki Huntington asked Environment Minister Barry Penner to provide provincial studies of flood control in the Fraser Valley from EMBC. “A number of months ago . . . I also asked whether the minister or the office of the solicitor general, the emergency measures office, would provide the scientific documents that sustained and showed that gravel extraction was helpful in flood control. I haven’t received those documents,” she said. “I was wondering whether the minister and his staff could see fit to provide me with [that] . . . I see no science that is indicating the gravel removal is anything but of benefit to the extraction companies.”
In addition to his position as environment minister, Penner is the MLA for Chilliwack and a key promoter of gravel extraction in the Fraser. (A 2008 article in the Chilliwack Times noted that gravel removal was part of Penner’s political platform in the 2001 and 2005 elections.) Responding to Huntington’s questions, Penner argued that the removals were essential due to gravel building up on the river bottom. “I know that it doesn’t rise equally and it doesn’t rise in every location all the time, but over time we know that as you deposit something in a confined space, that area will start to fill up.” He rejected Huntington’s suggestion that the program’s only real benefit was to extraction companies: “I appreciate that the member thinks there’s some kind of conspiracy, but let me tell you that people living in the Fraser Valley, I think, have every right to expect flood protection.”
Dwayne Meredith is acting director of EMBC’s Strategic Mitigation Program, which oversees the gravel mining projects – or “removals” as the agency prefers to call them – in the Fraser gravel reach. When asked about the nature and motive of gravel operations in the reach, and if the way that it is done is explicitly for the protection of the public, Meredith’s answer is unequivocal. “Absolutely,” he says. “As time moves on and more and more gravel is coming into the stretch and not moving through or past the [gravel reach] . . . the gravel is settling on to the riverbed and the riverbed is building up. And because the river is diked, that causes people to begin managing the river, at least slight portions of it, to minimize flood risk and meet other objectives as well.”
Which raises the question, How much gravel has actually built up in the Fraser? According to Michael Church, a retired UBC professor of geomorphology and hydrology, an average of 230,000 cubic metres of gravel settles in the riverbed between Hope and Mission every year. If you could spread it evenly throughout the channel, it adds up to about three millimetres a year, or about 15 centimetres since the 1948 flood. But this is an artificial number, as gravel is not deposited evenly throughout the reach. BCIT’s Rosenau points out that due to erosion by the river itself, which carries existing deposits farther downstream when the freshet is running high, there are large sections – a 22-kilometre stretch between the Sumas and Harrison rivers, for instance – that have lost large volumes of gravel over the last 10 years. “Flood protection is very much a specific and local matter of removing gravel from where it is building up,” he says. “Managing flooding in the river to some sort of artificial sediment budget number over the entire reach, as the government is currently doing, is just plain loopy.”
Church adds that “the entire program [of gravel extraction] is highly experimental,” and that “in almost every case in the world where gravel has been removed from a river, it has been removed in volumes greatly in excess of input, which is almost never known, and the river has promptly collapsed into a ditch-like form with drastic consequences for the riverine ecosystem.” While removal might still afford a means of flood protection to complement raising dikes, Church believes that “the rational solution” would be to limit the number of homes, businesses and farms on the flood plain, “indeed, to start reassembling sectors of the flood plain for preservation as floodable wetland.” But he acknowledges that homeowners, the business community, farmers and real estate developers are unlikely to find this appealing, to say the least.
While his research has been used by EMBC to justify the extraction program, Church is largely critical of the government’s chosen flood-mitigation projects to date, calling the 2006 Big Bar extraction “not an optimal choice” and the 2008 Spring Bar extraction “a very poor choice.” His opinions are based, he says, on the notion that gravel should only be removed from zones where it chronically accumulates, and “only Gill Bar lies in one of those zones.” Quoted in a 2008 article in the Globe and Mail, Church went even further, saying that it was “misleading” for government to say there was a flood risk at Seabird Island because gravel has not been building up at Spring Bar. The reach where Spring Bar lies, he told the reporter, has “on the whole been degrading – that is, it has been losing gravel for several decades now.”
Peter Ward of UBC’s civil engineering department, one of Church’s colleagues, concurred. “As a hydrology engineer who has been involved with matters concerning Fraser River flooding for many years, I am surprised about why this project [at Spring Bar] could possibly be justified on the basis of flood control,” he said in a separate written opinion issued around the same time, adding that it “looks as though someone proceeded with the construction work without getting or listening to competent advice.”
So if gravel removal projects have not been chosen for flood control, then why? Critics of the program point to the money to be made from gravel sales and government grants. Between 2005 and 2009, the province spent $16.6 million on flood protection programs in the Fraser Valley, including dike improvements in Mission, Abbotsford and Chilliwack. Of this, $2.6 million was devoted to “sediment management” – building access roads to gravel bars and providing hydraulic studies and environmental monitoring. As a result, contractors extracted gravel on 14 occasions from nine gravel bars, mining them for approximately 3.3 million tonnes of aggregate – worth, at a minimum retail price for unprocessed gravel, about $13.2 million.
The proponents of most extraction operations in the gravel reach are two First Nations bands connected to the Sto:lo Tribal Council (STC): the Seabird Island Band near Agassiz and the Cheam Band near Rosedale. These bands, which claim traditional rights over several gravel bars in the reach, work in partnership with contractors who possess the heavy machinery. In 2008 Spring Bar became the largest and most ambitious gravel-mining project in the Fraser to date. Advocating extraction was the 850-member Seabird band, which awarded the mining contract to Jakes Construction, a Chilliwack company that handles everything from municipal sewer upgrades to subdivision site preparation. Jakes, as it happens, was also the contractor that built the access road to Big Bar in 2006, inadvertently causing the pink salmon kill.
Under the EMBC program, every contractor who extracts gravel from the reach is allowed to keep it for resale in lieu of cash payment. In the case of Spring Bar, Jakes was permitted to pull out and keep 570,000 tonnes of gravel – or well over half the amount of sand and gravel sold in the Chilliwack area in a given year. (Larger operators can process gravel and create a value-added product – clean pea gravel or larger-sized drain rock sell for around $26 a tonne – but smaller contractors such as Jakes usually sell Fraser gravel as is, directly from a pile, for about $4 per tonne.) Jakes owner Jake Klaassen would not go on record with his overhead costs, but, according to industry sources, removing gravel from the Fraser reach can cost anywhere from $1 to $3 a tonne. While margins are low, volume is high. At the going rate for unprocessed gravel, the Spring Bar operation resulted in the capture of an asset worth roughly $2.25 million.
Turning gravel into cash is a long-term proposition, however; half of the gravel taken out of Spring Bar two years ago is still sitting unsold, according to Klaassen. “There is a market for the gravel, but how can you show up at some vendor’s door with 100,000 tonnes of gravel in one month? They’re just not going to take it. They’re going to say, ‘What do you want me to do with these 10,000 truckloads?’” Selling off the half-million-tonne pile from Spring Bar, he says, will take five years and bring him only a five to seven per cent return on his investment. “Many contractors won’t do gravel extraction because it’s difficult to make it financially viable,” he says. “You’ll find a lot of these extractions won’t happen if there’s not some kind of collective agreement. . . . I always get a little upset when people say you’re taking the gravel out and there’s these big margins in it. I’d love them to know that it’s not that way at all; it’s an expensive cubic metre coming out.”
The collective agreement Klaassen refers to describes a financial arrangement as much as a flood-control plan. The Seabird band receives royalties for gravel removal from Jakes as well as other unspecified payments for additional services, which form part of Klaassen’s overhead costs. Neither Klaassen nor the band’s economic development adviser, Brian Jones, would place a definite value on Seabird’s involvement in the partnership, but in the past the band has charged royalty rates ranging from $0.40 to $2 per tonne. Between 2005 and 2009, the band partnered with Jakes Construction, and possibly other contractors, to mine about 900,000 tonnes of gravel from the reach – which, at a lowball rate of $0.40 a tonne, amounts to $360,000. The band also received $860,000 in provincial funding to build temporary causeways to the Spring and Tranmer bars – two lucrative contracts, both awarded to Jakes. (Jakes also received $200,000 from the City of Chilliwack to build the access road to Big Bar in 2006.) The funding process thus forms a loop: government money is delivered to a band to build a bridge, the band pays a contractor to build it, the contractor removes the gravel – and from the revenue earned by building the bridge and selling the gravel, the contractor pays royalties and fees for “additional services” back to the band.
When asked about this arrangement, Jones protests that his band barely makes any money after all the time spent processing red tape and permits. “To quote a royalty amount is not what I would like to see as this doesn’t reflect our overall intent, which is to remove materials from the river to lower the flood profile,” he said in an emailed response. “Any lowering will be a huge benefit for Seabird as we do not have any dike protection at similar heights with others. . . . We are not in this for the money.”
Similarly, Klaassen defends the practice of gravel mining as having public safety uppermost in mind and downplays the profit motive. “We firmly believe it does a lot of good for our valley and everything here, so we’re willing to do a long-term investment,” he says. “Everybody has this predetermined view that this is very valuable material. . . . At the end of the day, it’s no different than anything else: it’s done for the emergency, the flood protection, and after that the thought goes into the sales and to the market.”
In the same time frame between 2005 and 2009, K & L Contracting – a gravel pit company owned by Chief Lincoln Douglas of the 479-member Cheam band – mined at least four bars in the reach for over 600,000 tonnes of gravel. Like the Seabird band, the Cheam have been vocal proponents of gravel extraction in the Fraser River. Ernie Crey is a Cheam member, former director of STC fisheries programs and currently a senior policy adviser to the STC. In a written statement released in April, Crey insisted that gravel removal in the reach “is an important public safety work and an important component in maintaining viable fish habitat. The fact that science hasn’t caught up to this reality should come as no surprise to anyone. An integral component to understanding the Fraser River and the fish within it is the traditional knowledge of the people who have lived here and been sustained by its bounty for thousands of years.”
Yet a 2004 DFO briefing memo regarding relationships with the Cheam suggests that government-sponsored gravel mining projects in the reach may have more to do with economic development, and détente, than flood safety or traditional knowledge. Following years of confrontations between DFO fisheries officers and Cheam band members over fishing rights (one of which, in 2003, resulted in officers pepper spraying the band’s head councillor), local DFO administrators recommended to their deputy minister that as part of an attempt to “develop [a] long-term respectful relationship between DFO and Cheam,” the fisheries agency should “facilitate a 2004 gravel removal opportunity for the community: excellent economic development benefit for the community ($40,000), profit for the band council.”
There was, at that time, no mention of fish habitat, flood risks or public safety.
Back at the Gill Road parking lot next to the dike, Kwak and I meet Chief Jack Mussell of the Skwah Band, a Sto:lo band of about 450 members not affiliated with the STC. Mussell has been doing habitat restoration on the Fraser and its tributaries for the past 15 years. A former logger, he’s 68 and remembers being “right in the midst” of the big flood of 1948. He is critical of gravel removal, predicting the possible channelization cited by Michael Church. “I would like to see this river survive so your great-grandkids could see something here, see that we cared enough to save it. Otherwise we’re going to have one big trough from Hope to Vancouver.” When asked if he considers the gravel removal program to be legitimate flood control, he laughs. “I’ve worked on the river all my life, and I’ve spent years doing everything you could think of with fish habitat,” he says. “Let me tell you, these guys are just blowing smoke with all this flood protection stuff. It’s a money grab.” He leans out the window of his white pickup and nods at the river. “Crey and [Chief Lincoln] Douglas have got a conflict of interest when they start talking about the fish and the gravel. If [Crey] was representing us, he would be asking us. He’s not. There’s 6,000 of us! Every one of them, they’re not representing the people. They’re speaking for themselves; that’s all they’re doing.”
Gravel extraction in the Fraser River as currently practiced appears not to be a risk-mitigation work performed with provincial funds, like building a dike, but something closer to an economic development project, one housed under an emergency-preparedness program. This explains why Spring Bar, a site given a thumbs-down by leading hydrologists, was mined for a vast quantity of gravel. Sites are being chosen not specifically for any strategic value in reducing flood threat but for easy access to making a buck – and as a way to build better relationships between government agencies and certain native bands.
Economic development is no sin, but neither is it flood control. For gravel removal to actually lower the flood risk, says Marvin Rosenau, the provincial government needs to re-evaluate its policy of offering up gravel bars as for-profit mining sites. If gravel removal is justified, it should go forward as a public work, based on strategic science. “The agencies must provide a publicly transparent hydraulic ‘trigger,’ where gravel is only removed if a certain threshold in increased water-surface elevation is met. Otherwise ‘any gravel removal is good gravel removal’ becomes the context of flood protection, which is intellectually, technically and statistically absurd.” He is equally outspoken on the need for investment in the wild habitat values of the gravel reach. “In the context of gravel removal from the Fraser River, ecologically our kids will have lost such an enormous amount before we ever knew what we had,” he says. “This is a large, complex and difficult stream to work on, and it is an extraordinarily ecologically rich stream by both British Columbia and world standards . . . anyone who tells you that the agencies are protecting the resource in the face of these large-scale mining efforts has no idea what they’re talking about.”
With the fly fisherman’s reverence for moving water and the things that live in it, Frank Kwak also would like to see the public sector have a voice in the gravel removal program. The B.C. government, he says, needs to accept – and enact – the ecological oversights suggested by independent biologists such as Rosenau, Otto Langer and John Werring, which includes in-depth assessment of the habitat value of gravel bars and surrounding channels before plans are laid to mine them. “That would be a big step forward.” But he also thinks that agencies such as the DFO should begin restoring what the river, and the people who live on it, have already lost.
“If we’ve cut off side channels or killed two million young salmon in the Fraser, we should mitigate that by saying, ‘Well, here is some habitat restoration project that we’re going to do, and pay for it’ – to pay for that loss going forward,” he says. “Because what’s happening now, not just in the gravel but in all kinds of other work, is we’re losing them, losing the fish and habitat, stream by stream by stream. And there’s nothing replacing the stuff that’s being taken away.”