MP Report: Coquitz spill shows need for environmental protection

Colquitz River in Saanich was contaminated with murky and potentially toxic sediment

In November, I received some very troubling news. While work on the McKenzie interchange was underway, heavy rains came, and by Nov. 23 the Colquitz River was contaminated with murky and potentially toxic sediment. This came at a critical time when more than 1,000 salmon were attempting to make their way upstream.

The Colquitz River is one of a dwindling number of salmon spawning rivers on southern Vancouver Island. With no federal protection for 99 per cent of Canada’s lakes and rivers due to the Harper government taking such protection away and the Liberals failing to follow through on their campaign promise to reinstate it, there is currently no adequate federal recourse for this type of environmental impact to be addressed. The Colquitz River is the unfortunate proof that the federal government needs to restore federal environmental protection for rivers, lakes and streams and reinstate its ability to step in when provincial governments have failed to provide adequate protection.

In 2015, the Liberal government campaigned on a promise to restore the protections lost when the Harper Conservative government took away the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Unfortunately, this restoration looks ready to join a growing list of broken campaign promises. Meanwhile, the Colquitz River and its spawning salmon were left with inadequate protection this past November.

The Navigable Waters Protection Act had been in place for 200 years when the Conservative government dealt the final blow to this important protection for Canada’s lakes, rivers and streams in 2012. The act was designed to trigger an environmental review for any project that took place near or on a body of water and provide recourse for ongoing environmental protection at the federal level. This loss of protection for lakes, rivers and streams sparked outrage across the country and was one of the issues that set off the Idle No More movement.

When I received news that the Colquitz River was full of both salmon and dangerous murky sediment this past November, I worried about the salmon currently in the river and the viability of the Colquitz as an ongoing spawning river. Although I shared the urgent concern of community members and organizations such as the Tillicum-Gorge Community Association, without the Navigable Waters Protection Act, there was little that I could do to intervene beyond lodging a complaint with the local office of Fisheries and Oceans. This needs to change, and the protection for 99 per cent of Canada’s lakes and rivers must be immediately reinstated.

I believe that we can address our traffic problems without harming our increasingly precious natural resources, such as the Colquitz River and its spawning salmon. Residents of the West Shore don’t deserve to be stuck in traffic for hours every day, but I will continue to stress  that the impacts on the local environment must be limited.  With adequate environmental impact assessments and multiple levels of government providing a safety net, we should be able to do this type of work in a way that doesn’t further degrade our fragile coastal environment.

In the meantime, local activists and community members brought this problem to the attention of myself, MLA Rob Fleming, the DFO, the provincial government and the construction company responsible for the McKenzie interchange project, among others. The contractor in charge put up remedial barriers, but much of the damage was already done. I know that the community will continue to rally around the Colquitz River and restoration efforts will be undertaken, but it is unacceptable for the federal government to not provide support and protection for these important waterways.

Randall Garrison is the MP for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke.

 

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