Damaged culvert at Abel Creek a hardship for salmon and other fish

The District of Invermere (DOI) has been working towards a solution with a plan to replace next summer

By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

What if the only road and way you could travel home safely was blocked and it remained this way for years? This has been a concern for fish needing to pass through a damaged culvert on Johnston Road since 2017.

There have been ongoing concerns regarding this culvert from community members like Ben Mitchell-Banks, conservationist and manager of the Abel Creek Restoration Project with the Lake Windermere District Rod and Gun Club. Earlier this year in April the gun club was awarded the B.C. Wildlife Federation Roderick Haig-Brown Conservation Award which is bestowed annually to recognize a conservation project that benefits fish, wildlife, or a natural habitat. It was recognized for its habitat restoration work that has been underway on Abel Creek since 2014.

Part of the restoration work the club was awarded for included the removal in August of 2015 of the dam on Abel Creek that was located adjacent to Walker and Sandwell Road about 70 metres downstream of where it goes under Westside Road. The gun club received some grant monies for their Abel Creek project, but also contributed a lot of their own funds and labour.

“Like many salmon habitats, Abel Creek has been devastated by human development. The entire lower section has been channelized due to the placing of the two roads, above and below Westside Road. Channelization prevents the stream from forming a riffle pool structure and basically creates a fast-flowing ditch with larger cobble,” said Mitchell-Banks. “The larger stone does not provide spawning habitat for kokanee salmon, rainbow trout or westslope cutthroat trout. The dam below Westside Road effectively prevented fish from reaching almost all their spawning habitat since about 1910 or so.”

Beginning in 2017, Mitchell-Banks shared his concerns about the damaged culvert at Abel Creek with the DOI. He said the only thing now blocking kokanee salmon from reaching their spawning grounds is the DOI culvert 300 metres above Westside Road.

“It was apparent at that time that while the kokanee could now swim up to the culvert on Johnston Road, they were unable to make it through that culvert. The DOI knew for many years there were likely fish passage problems with their culverts but never bothered to follow up. They knew this because a report they commissioned raised the issue,” said Mitchell-Banks.

Invermere mayor, Al Miller shared that the DOI has been aware that the culvert has been troublesome since 2017, but were unable to dive into the process until 2019.

“It’s not just a simple fix when you are going into a waterway, and you’ve got fish. You must deal with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). We have been doing that since it was first brought to our attention in 2017,” said Miller. “There’s also a hefty price tag attached to this repair. It’s a $400,000 bill to fix it, plus there are a lot of steps of consultation to go through before a project like this can be taken on and completed,” said Miller.

The gun club tried several funding options over the years to assist the DOI with funding but were unable to obtain grant monies. The common response they received was that the funds are to go to conservation funds on crown lands, (that) defective infrastructure that is owned by a municipality should be paid for by the owners, that being the municipal, provincial, or federal governments.

“It’s too late now to replace the structure this year. In-stream work usually takes place during a fish timing window. This is the time when digging in the creek will do the least damage. The timing depends on the fish that one would usually find in that creek,” said Mitchell-Banks. “For Abel Creek that period is in the late summer, at that time the trout eggs have hatched, and the alevins are out of the gravel and the kokanee salmon have not yet moved into the stream to start their fall spawning run.”

While it may have been a while since waterways like Abel Creek have had to worry about salmon runs, that has certainly changed since the Shuswap Band released 1500 kokanee salmon into the upper Columbia River this past summer. Before that recent release the upper Columbia River had not seen salmon in decades. Miller agreed that now, safe passage is more crucial than ever.

“It’s very important, certainly we want to make sure that it is in good shape, so that is why we are underway working with our own engineer, and urban systems as well as DFO and the biologists. It’s not just a simple case anymore. In the old days you’d go in there with an excavator, rip up the road, put a culvert in, and it’d be done, and for half the price. There were problems sometimes associated when doing things that way. Now, these fixes have become a little more particular and probably rightly so. We have a great relationship with the Shuswap Band and so we have been consulting with them and have been working with the biologists who take of that for the DFO.

“So basically, it’s just been taking a lot of time and there is only one time of the year that the work can be done. We’ve had good consultation with the Shuswap Band, particularly newly-appointed Salmon Chief, Mark Thomas,” Miller continued. “I know some folks may think we have been dragging our feet, but the fact of the matter is we’ve had to deal with other levels of government. It’s not just within our hands. Next summer is the plan to have this repaired. We’ve got a report done up and are working on (a) request for proposal (RFP) to collect quotes, and the hope is that we can award that next spring, so that we can progress with work in the summer.”

Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer