A milky discharge pouring into a creek on the Burnaby-Coquitlam border has been linked to the death of hundreds of young salmon, according to a local stream-keeper group.
Stoney Creek is the most important salmon-bearing stream in the Burnette River watershed, and local volunteers have spent years trying to bring fish back.
But stream-keepers claim a series of sewer overflows and contamination from nearby residents and development has threatened all that hard work.
The latest die-off appears to have killed upwards of 300 fish, says George Kovacic, a member of the group who discovered the fish Friday with his son, Luka.
“He was taking visiting family to view his beloved creek and salmon,” says Kovacic in an email, “he left upset and with tears.”
On Thursday, July 29, the father and son say they spotted a coloured discharge coming from a culvert near Rathburn Drive and North Road on the Burnaby side of the municipal border. The next day, the stream was littered with over 300 dead fish.
“I don’t know how many died because the blue herons came and were eating the fish,” says 12-year-old Luka.
Staff from the City of Coquitlam and the City of Burnaby arrived later, though George Kovacic said he’s still waiting to hear from the Department of Fish and Oceans (DFO), the agency responsible for waterways.
Jaime Boan, general manager of engineering and public works at the City of Coquitlam, says his team took “turbid water” samples in several catch basins and is still waiting for laboratory results.
Boan says city staff have identified a potential source of the contamination: a contractor in the area doing geotechnical work.
“It’s a source. There could be others. That’s what we’re continuing to look into,” says Boan, adding the city will be fining the company $500.
A DFO spokesperson Leri Davies said its deferring any federal investigation to Environment Canada because there was no identifiable destruction of habitat near the site.
Meanwhile, the father and son have scores of dead fish sitting in their freezer at home, waiting for someone to come and test them.
“I’d love DFO to tell me. Who wants these frozen fish?” he said.
CAUSE OF DEATH IS STILL UNCLEAR
On Monday, Stoney Creek Environment Committee president John Templeton said a volunteer collected another 65 dead coho fry, an endangered lamprey and two trout species further upstream.
“Aquatic life appeared to be non-existent along this portion of the creek, and there are still dead fish scattered there,” Templeton said in an email.
This is not the first time Stoney Creek has been at the centre of a debate over urban pollution.
In the past, the stream has faced fallout from several oily discharges and sewer overflows. Stream-keepers like Templeton blame a surge in development uphill from the stream.
“This is a recurring event. They need to do something to stop it,” he says.
But when it comes to sewer overflow events, sewage bubbling through a nearby manhole has been documented during heavy rainfall events. The latest threat to fish comes during an extended dry spell.
Rick Gallilee of Metro Vancouver’s Liquid Water Services Department said the regional authority has checked its infrastructure and found no leaks.
“There’s definitely no sewer overflows,” he said. “I’m not sure what it is.”
Samples collected by Kovacic and later tested by Kevin Ryan, president of Mossom Creek Hatchery in Port Moody, revealed PH levels of 10.81, a level “extremely bad that alone would kill everything in the creek,” wrote Ryan in an email.
Those readings have not been confirmed by Metro Vancouver staff, and Galilee says he’s waiting on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and staff from the City of Burnaby to confirm the cause of the die-off and the stream's overall health.
MP PUSHING FOR CHANGE
The incident has prompted at least one politician to accelerate her efforts around protecting waterways from contamination. In June, Nelly Shin, Conservative Minister of Parliament for Port Moody-Coquitlam, backed a private members bill that would have banned sewage dumping in Canadian waterways.
On Saturday, she wrote to Terry Beech, Liberal MP for Burnaby North and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, calling for answers over the die-off.
"Please let me know what steps you have taken to identify the source of the pollutants and what steps will be undertaken to ensure such spills don’t happen again in Stoney Creek or other Canadian waterways," Shin wrote Beech in a letter seen by Glacier Media.
Like many metropolises across the world, Metro Vancouver’s urban streams face a number of threats — from encroaching development, people dumping pollutants into storm drains, and in the case of coho salmon, runoff made toxic from car tires.
To make matters worse, a changing climate is expected to put pressure on the region’s sewer system, leading to more frequent and intense heavy rainfall events.
When the sewer system can’t cope with such huge quantities of rain, sewers back up, and in some cases, send toilet paper and human waste bubbling onto the street and into rivers and streams. In 2017, over 39 million cubic metres of untreated sewage entered regional water bodies in Metro Vancouver.
Upgrading leaky infrastructure — where rainwater enters the system — is an expensive prospect, made more complicated by the fact that half of Metro’s underground system of pipes sits under private property.
“What we’re experiencing here is a small sample of what we’re experiencing across Canada,” Shin told Glacier Media Friday. “It’s not something that one jurisdiction can deal with.”
The MP says she’s planning to call a town hall in the coming weeks to address sewer overflows and the pollution of local waterways. Shin says it would bring together all levels of government, experts and environmental groups.
“After finding out about the dead fish, seeing the photos, it’s so disturbing. We just need to come together,” she said.