Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Building Bridges...Literally

What is the first thing you think about when you hear the word "government?I can guarantee that most of your conversations don't go anything like this, "Wow, they sure did a good job.  Feels pretty good to have them working so hard and getting things done for us.“  Believe it or not, that's how I've been talking about our regional government this summer.  Don't worry, I haven't been drinking the Koolaid, I will always be an active citizen that holds government accountable but I believe in giving praise when it's deserved.

A few years ago, the Gitxsan Watershed Authority completed a report about fish passage problems along the Kispiox road.  The report looked at all the places where salmon were blocked from getting to their spawning habitat by beaver dams, culverts and other obstructions.  It was the culverts that seemed to be the biggest problem.
Assessing the culvert at Murder Creek

How can a culvert block fish from getting to the other side of the road?  Well, if the river was high, the culvert acted like a cannon shooting water so fast that the salmon couldn't get through.  Other times the water was so low that it made a waterfall too high for the salmon to jump into.  The part of the report that really caught my eye was the statement that replacing these culverts with bridges would result in 18,000 more coho in the system from the replacement of just one of these!  Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition (that's who I work for) was asked to organize a community meeting about these issues. Tim Wilson of Gitxsan Watershed Authority and Ken Rabnett were the authors of that report and came to the meeting with Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ministry of Transportation and members of the Kispiox community.

If you know anything about the community of Kispiox Valley or the Gitxsan Watershed Authority, you would know that we are dedicated in our ability to stand together, to protect each other and our wild steelhead and salmon.  This is why we can make government a little bit nervous when we ask for a meeting, especially when we request it happen on our turf.

We didn’t just want to talk about culverts, we wanted government to repair a section of road that had been washing away into the river each and every year with the high water. Let's be realistic, what the community wanted was a $1.5 million investment in infrastructure for a community of about 180 people.

We had written several letters and most of them strongly worded.  It was through the promise of collaboration and the fantastic report by Gitxsan Watershed Authority that the meeting finally happened. "I felt like I was walking into the lion's den!" recalls Greg Ross, Regional Project Manager for the Ministry of Transportation.  After Greg survived the meeting without a single scratch, he assembled the teams for each of the 4 projects (3 bridge installations and repairing the washed out road) and coordinated the work.

Rip Rap Road Repair
Where the river was eroding the road, it is now stabilized with large rock (rip rap) and is the first armoring known to happen in the Kispiox River. Willows were placed along the bank, don't worry that they are all dead and brown; they will propagate and grow new willows. Live willows were planted this fall to help stabilize the bank as well. Erosion is a natural process and there are always downstream changes when you interrupt a process like this. This spot will eventually fill up with gravel and silt which will force the current to straighten out the river.

From a timeline perspective, this was a serious education for most of us. We saw the need to get the work done and felt that government didn't share our same sense of urgency. Didn't they understand that our salmon needed and deserved their immediate attention? We even offered to supply some of the heavy equipment and volunteers for environmental monitoring. We were willing to do anything to make the work happen immediately. Now, if we lived in a dictatorship, the big boss could simply say, "GET TO WORK NOW!" and there would be nothing to worry about...except that we don't live in a dictatorship. A democratic government works a little differently and has to be accountable. There was a litany of approval processes from engineering designs, acquisition of the bridge building materials, bidding of contracts to do the work, figuring out the best window of opportunity so the work won't disturb salmon, budgets, etc.  It's enough red tape to paint the lips of every Angelina Jolie photo ever taken. (If you don't know who Angelina is, just know that it's a LOT of red tape)
Taking out the old wooden culvert at Clifford Creek

The report was written in 2007, the community meetings happened in 2008, the engineering designs and budgets were done in 2009 with the hopes of getting to work in 2010 but due to a few other road repair type emergencies, the work was completed at the end of this summer.

Another lesson learned in my evolution as an activist is that government is made up of people.  It's easy to write government off as a big, fire-breathing dragon but essentially it's just people. Normal people who have families, hectic schedules, back problems or trouble with teenagers; people that might like to lip sync in their car to Rachelle van Zanten or people that really love smoked salmon. That isn't saying that all decisions made by the people in government are good ones but just like a family or a community, you've got the ones you're proud of, that work hard, saved the neighbour's dog from drowning and brought you over some cookies just because they felt like it; and then you've got the others, the ones that always fart at the table, steal your lawn furniture and sell it for beer money or tell the world that you wet the bed until you were 7 - the ones you wished would fall face first into a pile of cows@!t.

Installing the bridge at Murder Creek
While this area is the center of our universe, it is a small blob on Greg Ross' map. The area that he manages for Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is all the way from Haida Gwaii to the Alberta Border and from the Yukon Border to Blue River just north of Kamloops. That's bigger than Germany and slightly smaller than Sweden! Imagine all the projects coming at him every, single day.

Greg and his wife Cheryl live on a farm at the mouth of the Copper river near Terrace, BC. He's got 2 kids in college, LOVES fishing and is a build-a-fire-and-drink-a-beer kind of a guy. Before his government job he worked at Nass Camp and BC Timber doing lay out work for the logging industry. He started working for Highways as a surveyor back in 1983 and remembers the Copper when it only had a few humans.

I asked Greg what his favourite part of this project was and his face lit up, "Dealing with the people and their passion about their valley and knowing there would be visible results in the near future We would see lots of fish moving up those creeks when they haven't been able to do it for years. This wasn't about the bridges, it was about the fish. This was a feel-good kind of project." Greg also talked about how well all the government agencies collaborated. The Ministry of Transportation managed the project.  Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) were supportive and constructive with input and were onsite all the time. Some of the DFO folks even came out and volunteered to do instream work with chest waders and snorkel gear! The Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs were consulted on each project and the Gitxsan Watershed Authority was the spark for getting the fire lit to address the problems. The results are already evident with pink salmon seen spawning above one of the bridges in numbers this fall.

Salmon that have made it to the other side of the road!
So what can we learn from all of this? Well, there was a well-written and researched report that outlined solutions instead of only complaining about problems.  Add a few firm phone calls and letters from locals, a friendly invitation to discuss these things with the community at large, treat the government officials as if they were real people and VIOLA!!  We've got a safe road to drive on and thousands more salmon to thrive in the river. This project was something I was proud to be a part of. I think Greg summed it up best, "This was for the betterment of society - the residents, the Gitxsan, the fish. All that new habitat is opened up and knowing that we would see thousands of coho in those creeks instead of 3 or 4, that makes this a fun project. People made this happen, people are the government and that's sometimes forgotten."

Feel free to email Greg Ross and let him know that he's done a good job!