Volunteer Putting Native Plants in the Ground
“There has never been a more urgent need to restore damaged ecosystems than now.” So proclaims the United Nations as a preamble to declaring 2021 – 2030 the Decade of Ecological Restoration. The purpose of the declaration is to serve as “a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world, for the benefit of people and nature.”
The Greater Victoria region has its share of degraded natural ecosystems in desperate need of restoration. Among those hardest hit are the region’s streams. Many have been severely modified. Instead of following a natural course across the landscape, they’ve been forced into straight, concrete channels or steel culverts and in many cases, under parking lots, shopping malls and urban neighbourhoods. As a result the salmon runs these streams once supported collapsed.
One of the organizations working hard to restore the region’s damaged watersheds is Peninsula Streams Society (PSS). Their most recent project is aimed at opening up more habitat in the upper watershed of Millstream Creek.
To learn more about the project, I met Ian Bruce, the organization’s Executive Coordinator, at the site a couple of days ago. He and a couple of staff were preparing the area for planting the next day by volunteers.
This wasn’t our first meeting. Our paths had crossed a few times over the past 18 years since I was introduced to him. At the time, I was an environmental reporter with a local television station and I was doing a story for the 6 o’clock news about the restoration of small stream on the Saanich Peninsula near the airport. What I had forgotten was this was also about the time the PSS was formed.
It was natural then to start our conversation by asking him to remind me of how the Society came into being.
While the organization has only two other staff to assist Ian, it has had a big impact in restoring degraded watersheds within Greater Victoria by taking a grassroots approach.
The construction of a fishway and modification of a large culvert on Millstream Creek is the latest project of PSS and its supporters. Soon to be completed, this project makes it possible for returning salmon to access habitat further upstream. More habitat should translate into more salmon returning.
“Once I became involved in 2016,” he said, “I worked with them to get a fund-raising campaign going to make the project happen.” The Town of View Royal, City of Langford, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada provided enough money to get a technical design made. With further fund-raising, the Society had almost enough to start construction in 2018; they’re still short about $300,000.
“At first we thought we were stuck, except that we had a shovel-ready project with professional engineering and technical design drawings ready for tender,” he explained.
With this asset, the Society was able to raise the last bit of funds needed to start work. Many, many organizations contributed. So many Ian couldn’t list them all. From start to finish, he estimates the total cost of the project to be in the order of one million dollars.
Definitely not an insignificant amount of money to raise, especially by a small conservation organization. I wondered about the cost of fishways in comparison to restoring stream banks and riparian vegetation.
I found it interesting that Ian appears to see the construction of the fishway and modification of the culvert as not restoration. Certainly they’re restoring a historic link for returning salmon to habitat upstream. More habitat should translate into more salmon returning.
But I think I understand where he’s coming from. The construction work here is a very different kind of restorative intervention than repairing stream banks in terms of scale, cost, and degree of constructed infrastructure.
One thing we strongly agree on, is that restoration is not enough. Something else must happen. Several years back, Ian went through the Restoration of Natural Systems program at the University of Victoria and something that one of his instructors said deeply affected him and it has become a guiding principle for him personally as well as for PSS.
The next day I went back to speak with some of the volunteers who came out to help with putting native plants in the ground. I wanted to hear what motivated them to volunteer to do this physically challenging work.
The first volunteer I spoke with was Kitty Lloyd who I knew from my work as coordinator of the Greater Victoria Naturehood initiative. Kitty participated in our meetings and activities as a representative of the Capital Regional District where she worked as coordinator of the Gorge Waterway Initiative and Esquimalt Lagoon Stewardship Initiative. I knew she had recently retired. What I didn’t know is that she just recently joined the PSS board and was very excited about the Millstream Fishway project.
“Now that we know what damage we’ve done, we can’t not do restoration,” she said. “We need to clean up our mistakes and repair them as best as we can.”
And doing this hard work of restoring damaged natural ecosystems can be hugely rewarding as Kitty emphasized.
After chatting with Kitty, I looked around for my next “victim”. A young woman with bright blue-green hair caught my eye. She appeared to be about the same age of undergraduate students I once taught within the Department of Geography at the University of Victoria. She was down on her knees, covered in black mud and gently placing a fern into a hole she had just dug when I approached her.
She introduced herself as Tamara Bonsdorf.
An important aspect of the volunteer experience for Tamara was finding inspiration and hope for the future in it.
I, as well, came away from the experience with the same feelings. In fact, I continue to be encouraged and inspired by the ecological work carried out by Peninsula Streams Society and the local stewardship groups who partner with it. Together, they are making such an incredibly positive difference.
The UN has declared 2021 – 2030 as the Decade of Ecological Restoration as “a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world.” Think globally, act locally…that’s what Ian and PSS are doing and have been doing for almost two decades.
But to continue doing important and badly needed restoration projects, Peninsula Streams Society must have adequate funding. Please consider making donation through annual giving or to their Legacy fund.
The following letter to the Mayor and Council of Saanich I drafted and revised for the Victoria Natural History Society, within input from other directors, for signature by our president. Please consider contacting the Mayor and Council with your support for restoring the wetlands of Panama Flats.
Oct. 23, 2020
Mayor and Council
District of Saanich
770 Vernon Ave.
Victoria, BC, V8X 2W7
Re: Restoration of Panama Flats Wetland
Dear Saanich Mayor and Council,
On behalf of the Victoria Natural History Society, I’m writing to let you know of our Society’s concern regarding the management of Panama Flats. We recognize that Panama Flats are zoned for agricultural use. While we wholeheartedly support the protection of agricultural land, in this location, the ecological importance of this wetland cannot be overstated. Instead of farming it, we encourage you to commit to restoring and protecting it as a nature sanctuary, similar to Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary.
The Victoria Natural History Society is a completely volunteer community organization with a 75 year history in the region and as many as 750 members currently, many of whom are residents of Saanich. Our goals are:
To stimulate an active interest in natural history;
To study and protect flora and fauna and their habitats; and
To work with other societies and like bodies having interests in common with the Society.
Not surprisingly, we take an active interest in regional land use decisions that could adversely impact wildlife and its habitat. Panama Flats provides very important habitat for a great many species despite being significantly degraded by past farming practices. Of particular concern are the adverse impacts continued farming would have on migratory birds using the Pacific Flyway year-round. The Flats are known and promoted as one of the region’s birding hotspots with at least 207 species of birds recorded (via eBird).
It should also be pointed out that the value of a wetland, like Panama Flats, goes well beyond just providing habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. As many municipalities are discovering, protecting and restoring wetlands also makes good economic sense as shown through the Municipal Natural Asset Initiative. It employs tools to put a value on nature’s ability to provide municipal services, such as water purification, flood reduction, water supply and erosion control. Today, eleven municipalities across Canada have signed on to the initiative, which is leading to more wetlands and other natural ecosystems being restored and protected.
According to Ducks Unlimited, up to 80% of the original wetlands along Vancouver Island’s east coast have been destroyed. Within the Greater Victoria region, as much as 70% of the wetlands have been drained and filled in. Action to protect and restore wetlands within the region is urgently needed.
As we acknowledged in our Sept. 25th letter regarding the Royal Oak Golf Course property, the District of Saanich has a generally well-deserved reputation as an environmentally sensitive steward of public lands. In particular, we applaud the establishment of the Saanich Technical Committee recently with the sweeping mandate to “restore and protect air, land, and water quality, the biodiversity of existing natural areas and ecosystems, the network of natural areas and open spaces, and urban forests.” The restoration of Panama Flats is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to this mandate.
It also makes good economic sense in terms of flood protection and other ecological services provided by the wetland at no cost as alluded to by the Colquitz River Watershed Proper Functioning Condition Assessment commissioned by Saanich in 2009. It concluded that Panama Flats provided important surface water management services and that there was “great potential” for restoring the area as a valuable natural asset. It went on to provide specific and detailed recommendations as to how this should be done. In the short-term, restoration effort should focus on re-establishing meanders in the Colquitz River channel along with the removal of invasive species and replanting with native species appropriate to the habitat. The long-term goal, according to the Assessment, should be the re-establishment of the broader wetland that once occupied the area.
We fully support these recommendations and urge you to adopt and follow through with these recommendations.
Thank you for your attention,
Victoria Natural History Society