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Oil in the watershed
Like an unruly mob, a pack of Grade 4 and 5 students from Marigold elementary eagerly crowd around Barrie Goodwin as he pulls a 12-pound coho out of a large cooler at his feet.
The kids immediately reach out to pet the salmon – a dead four-year-old male – but Goodwin turns away, shielding the fish from the group. “We don’t want you smelling like fish the rest of the day,” he exclaims.
Standing at the shoreline of the Colquitz River, Goodwin and Chris Bos, both stream stewards, give the students a joint history-science lesson on the salmon-bearing river.
“We’ve been learning about the connection between stormwater runoff and the quality of our streams and rivers, and I’m noticing we’re near a giant parking lot and a huge highway,” says teacher Marnie Toh. “Can you tell us, is that an issue in this creek?”
Calling it “an issue” would be an understatement, given the Colquitz’s past year.
It was on Nov. 25, 2011 that Saanich discovered a 1,100-litre home heating oil spill on Kenneth Avenue. Most of that fuel had already flowed into a storm drain and polluted Colquitz River, Colquitz Creek and Swan Creek.
The Colquitz stewards, who had spent the previous two months counting the 252 Coho that swam up the creek to spawn, dismantled their fish counting fence behind Tillicum Centre in the hopes that the fish in the oil-soaked water would swim downstream back into the Gorge and escape the polluted area. In the days following, 24 adult salmon were found dead in the river.
Then on Feb. 23, 2012, the Colquitz was polluted again when another home heating tank leaked, this time spilling 630 litres of oil into the river near Vanalman Avenue.
And just last week, B.C. Hydro took responsibility for an oily sheen on the Colquitz River after mineral oil from a power cable leaked into the waterway.
“If we’re going to keep the fish and wildlife values for you and your kids in the future, we need to be careful that we don’t pollute these creeks,” Bos tells the students. “If the storm water isn’t clean ... we will have a problem – we will lose these values in the future.”
Adriane Pollard, Saanich’s manager of environmental services, says home heating spills of the last 12 months have been an eye-opening lesson for the municipality. Including the two big spills in the Colquitz, there were eight known home heating oil spills in Saanich since February 2011.
“Most of the time, we don’t hear about the spills – they’re small, contained and they’re cleaned up well,” Pollard says. “The difference is when you get a spill that leaves a property and heads to the nearest creek. For a period of time (this year) we had a great increase in the number of those spills.”
And those sorts of spills are likely going to continue, says Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming, who walked the Colquitz with Bos last week to see how the river is doing one year after that first big spill.
“These oil tanks really are just ticking time bombs,” says Fleming, the NDP’s environment critic. “What we’re seeing is that where there are areas of provincial responsibility, we have strong laws around enforcing cleanups. But there is a real gap on the prevention side.”
That statement is loudly echoed by Bos and Pollard, as well as Coun. Vicki Sanders, who chairs Saanich’s environmental advisory committee.
Educating homeowners on the risks associated with aging oil tanks and fuel lines is crucial in minimizing the number of these spills, they say.
“We know there are probably 9,000 oil tanks in Saanich – and that’s probably a conservative estimate. We’re seeing no co-operation from insurance or the oil companies to help us find them, because that would make it very simple for us to notify everybody who owns an oil tank – but that’s not happening,” Sanders says.
Saanich plans to send out an information sheet on home heating tanks with all municipal water bills in 2013.
“I would’ve liked to think this was a bit of an anomaly or a rarity, I would’ve never predicted that these (spills) would’ve continued like they did last year,” Sanders says. “However it has, and we realize there needs to be real education on heating oil tanks, and that hasn’t been done.”
“We feel that any communication that we can have with landowners is going to be beneficial to the community, and to the municipal use of taxpayers’ money and the environment,” adds Pollard. “And if we can increase the awareness of residents about their responsibilities, it all helps to complete the picture of keeping the oil where it should be.”
Even though prior to Nov. 25, 2011, Saanich’s spill response procedures were audited and confidence in the plans was deemed high, putting the response into practice multiple times since has allowed municipal crews to improve.
Mike Ippen, manager of public works, says crews have identified and labelled culverts in municipal watersheds, so they’re much easier to locate in the event of a spill. They have also purchased new cleanup equipment.
“(Oil spill response has) become almost full time for our drainage guys since November – that’s not traditionally the case,” Ippen told the News in February. “Our response is pretty darn quick, but we can always improve.”
The flip side of education that also needs to improve is what to do in the event of an oil spill, says Laurie Boyle, response officer and emergency planner with the B.C. Ministry of Environment.
“Timing is critical – it’s everything. The sooner and timelier the notification, the quicker we’re able to respond to spills,” Boyle says. “Saanich has done a good job in response (to the Nov. 25 spill). The posting of phone numbers (along creeks and trails) in the event of pollution observed is so important.”
For stewards like Bos and Goodwin, it’s not important, it’s critical. If there were to be another spill – perish the thought – timely reporting and a fast response could be a matter of life and death for wildlife now and in the future.
“If last year’s salmon run was significantly affected by the oil, we won’t know until 2014,” Bos says.
This year has been one of the worst at the Colquitz counting fence, as only 108 salmon have returned to the creek to spawn.
Bos doesn’t know if that’s attributable to last winter’s heating oil spills. It could be predators at the mouth of the river preventing the fish from returning upstream, or something else entirely.
Whatever the reason, the Colquitz, which generally sees strong fish returns, is telling a drastically different story this year than many other salmon-bearing rivers on the south Island.
“Goldstream’s doing well with coho, Shawnigan’s doing well, Sooke’s doing well, Victoria’s doing well at Craigflower, but not at Colquitz,” he says. “It doesn’t make natural sense.” The Craigflower counting fence, as of this week, has seen 850 salmon pass through this season.
In addition to paltry numbers of salmon this year, Bos says he and his fellow stewards have seen no sign of the freshwater shrimp – a source of food for wildlife in the river – in the Colquitz this year.
“It may be naturally a down year and we’re just not seeing any, but these are all important indicators of the health of the creek,” he says.
Toh, the teacher from Marigold, says seeing nature in action at the Colquitz is hugely beneficial in the students’ lesson plan.
“We’ve been looking at water pollution, storm water management, sustainable fishing, which this presentation has connected to all those issues,” she says. “We’re making strong connections, including putting it in the context of what’s going on the children’s backyard.”
Student groups frequently visit the Colquitz counting fence during salmon spawning season, which allows the stewards an opportunity to use these past oil spill events as a lesson in the hopes that history doesn’t repeat itself.
“We can maybe dodge bullets here and there, but if this keeps happening and we don’t have some way of fixing the problem in the long-term, we won’t be able to have our kids take their kids down to the creek and see those salmon and the wildlife there,” Bos says. “And I don’t think anybody wants that to happen.”email@example.com
Did you know?-Visit saanich.ca/services/utilities/spills.html to learn what to do in the event of an oil spill. The site features a brochure with tips for owners of home heating tanks to minimize risks of an oil spill.