Rivers are our lifeblood. We depend on them to provide us with water to drink and to irrigate our crops, they are habitat for the animals that provide us with sustenance, and they serve as networks to move goods and people. New Westminster was built along the shore of the Fraser River and our connection to this waterway runs deep. But there is another river that runs through our city: the Brunette River. While this river is strong and healthy today, it hasn’t always been that way.
Since 1969, the Sapperton Fish and Game Club (SFGC) has worked to enhance, restore, and revitalize the Brunette River, which at the time was viewed as no more than a local dumping ground. “All salmon runs in the river were extinct,” says Elmer Rudolph, president of the SFGC. Original members of the club grew up in Sapperton along the Brunette, and remember the salmon returns of their childhood. The level of deterioration the river experienced was “appalling,” so members decided to take action. This would set in motion events that would shape the future restoration of the river.
In the four years following the decision to take action, the club lobbied various levels of government to change the river’s sorry state. Initial efforts proved fruitless.The apathy they encountered would deter many, but the SFGC “took it as a challenge, not taking no for an answer,” says Rudolph. The club decided to initiate a clean up themselves, and with the help of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), they removed the worst of the debris.
After the initial clean-up was complete, the club intensified lobbying efforts and received the support of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). As DFO had an interest in helping the floundering coho salmon returns, the club’s efforts to restore this habitat did not go unnoticed. By the end of the 1970s, the SFGC had successfully created conditions in which the Brunette River could begin to thrive. Bylaw enforcement cracked down on polluters and water quality returned to a level where juvenile salmon and trout could survive again.
By the early 1980s, reports of trout big enough to be caught became more and more frequent. Around this time, the club decided to build concrete fishways along the Brunette system to facilitate the return of spawning salmon. By 1984, things were really looking up with the first return of spawning coho salmon in 30 years. It was around this time that Elmer Rudolph joined the club.
“In 1984, we became famous. People from across North America were looking to do similar stream restorations. They were calling us asking ‘how did you guys do this?’” recalls Rudolph. After years of being told by fisheries biologists from across the country to “forget it,” and that “it couldn’t be done,” the SFGC was “one of the first groups to restore a ‘dead river’,” according to Rudolph. “I’m really proud on behalf of the club [for what they accomplished],” Rudolph says, the pride in his voice apparent as he retells the story, “they didn’t take no for an answer.” When asked how they accomplished thisin the face of overwhelming odds, he simply says: “we didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so we just went out and did it.”
Unfortunately, the celebration would not last long. The next year the Brunette River suffered its first major setback: 10 gallons of wood preservative were dumped in the river from the Lake City industrial site. Many fish were killed, and the implications for an already fragile population were devastating.
The SFGC refused to give up after this terrible event. Efforts to return a viable stock continued. Remaining native species were reinforced by members transplanting eggs by hand, and populations of returning fish rose again. The club continued to work with DFO, finally seeing the fruits of their labour as pollution sources along the Brunette’s tributaries were identified and eliminated.
Then, in 1989, a second major setback occurred: a mindless act of vandalism along the Burlington Northern Railway track caused 3,000 litres of diesel fuel to be spilled into Stoney Creek, the main spawning stream of the Brunette River system, resulting in the death of thousands of juvenile fish. In order to completely contain the spill, the railway company brought in crews to clean up the site using absorbent material, and remained on-site 24 hours a day for the next week.
In the early 1990s, the SFGC again came to the aid of local waterways, this time in response to a massive fish kill in Fergus Creek in south Surrey caused by chloramine in the city’s drinking water. At this time, the GVRD was contemplating moving from chlorine to chloramine in the region’s drinking water. The SFGC came out in staunch opposition to this—cloramine would pose a huge threat to local salmon and trout populations if it escaped into the local environment, potentially leading to thousands of hours of wasted volunteer time to again rehabilitate the Brunette River system. The club’s campaign was successful, and in 1992 the GVRD decided against switching to chloramine.
In 1997, the club moved on to its next large project: a salmon-holding facility and hatchery. Everything was progressing wonderfully, with coho salmon eggs being incubated and salmon fry and smolts released into the Brunette River, when disaster struck for the third time. Toxic chemicals from a nearby sanitary sewer backup entered storm drains leading to the Brunette River. Nearly all aquatic life within three kilometres downstream of the release was killed in just 12 hours, including thousands of juvenile salmon released just days prior.
The following year, coho returns across the region plummeted, with fewer than 50 returning to the Brunette River. Fortunately, it was at this time the SFGC received $95,000 in a court-awarded judgment against two Coquitlam-based polluters, money that would be used to continue habitat enhancement and combat the degradation that occurred close to half a century earlier. Three rock weirs were built in order to increase available spawning grounds, summertime oxygen levels were increased in the river, and backwater used by overwintering juvenile salmon became protected, with more successful salmon returns as a result of these efforts.
In 2000, after over 30 years of working to restore the Brunette River, the SFGC won the Minister’s Environmental Award for their dedication to restoring a viable salmon population to the Brunette River. In 2007, the club expanded their projects to include spawning grounds for pink salmon.
Most recent efforts have been in building new off-channel tributaries and rearing ponds to increase spawning and juvenile salmon habitats. The ongoing efforts of the SFGC resulted in another huge milestone in 2012, when approximately 1,500 chum salmon returned to the Brunette River to spawn. This was a watershed moment—for the first time in over 50 years, all three historically spawning salmon species were again present in the Brunette River.
While today things look very positive for the Brunette River, the SFGC recognize that their work is far from over. Polluters are still out there, and the club knows from the past that all it would take is one spill or accident to devastate this fragile ecosystem. “The work of a stream keeper is never done in a metropolitan area,” says Rudolph.
As rivers ebb and flow down mountains, through forests, carving out valleys, forming the landscape, it must be remembered and respected that these essential waterways do not know man-made boundaries, treaties, or borders. We are all dependant on rivers and we need them to be strong and healthy so that generations to come can benefit from them as we do today, and have throughout history.