Like most Albertans, Ken and Norine McDonald moved to the Comox Valley for its moderate climate and natural beauty. From the front window of the house they would purchase on Jane Place in Comox, the Beaufort Range of mountains formed a forested backdrop for the K’omoks Estuary as it flowed into the Salish Sea.
Behind the house, the picturesque Golf Creek meandered around a bend on its way to Comox Bay. There were stairs down to a wooden bridge over the creek, where their granddaughter often splashed and played in the water.
They didn’t know then that fecal coliform in the creek could reach 230 times the maximum allowed under BC Ministry of Environment water quality standards, or that mercury levels could exceed limits by 800 times. Or that the water sometimes contained 50 times the provincial maximum of copper, which can be deadly to salmon.
And they did not know initially that the large volume of fast moving water that was undercutting their stream bank came from a confluence of pipes carrying contaminated stormwater runoff from most of downtown Comox.
It’s hard to find Golf Creek today, unless you play golf. The creek runs between the third and fourth holes of the Comox Golf Club, crosses the fourth and fifth fairways, and then disappears into a pipe under the Comox Mall and the Berwick Retirement Community. It surfaces again on private property from the south side of Comox Avenue down to Comox Harbour.
Twenty-three separate municipal stormwater pipes gush contaminated runoff into Golf Creek. Eighty-six percent of the creek is buried and no fish even attempt to swim it. It is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
After the McDonald’s spent $15,000 constructing a green geotextile wall to guard against further erosion of their property, they discovered the high volume and fast flow rate of the creek after rainfalls was a result of stormwater runoff from the neighborhoods north of the golf course, the course itself and most of downtown Comox. Months later, another section of the McDonalds’ bank collapsed, which will cost another $15,000 to repair.
When the town refused to accept responsibility for the damage and compensate them, the McDonalds filed a small claims court lawsuit in June of 2016. They have spent $20,000 on a nearly three-year legal battle that has not been settled.
“The town’s strategy is simple, bleed our savings until we relent,” McDonald said.
During research for their legal case, the McDonalds discovered the town had commissioned multiple engineering reports that recommended mitigation measures for the high volume and flow rate of Golf Greek. Several of them, including a 26-year-old report by KPA Engineering, advised the town to construct a detention pond to control the release of upstream rainwater and to help settle out contaminates.
The town continues to ignore those recommendations.
Golf Creek: what happened
For 2,000 years, indigenous peoples continuously occupied the stretch of Comox Harbour in the lee of Goose Spit, living off of a wide range of natural food sources. They harvested fish from Golf Creek and Brooklyn Creek, drank their waters and harvested shellfish during the summer low tide cycles.
Colonial occupation and eventual urban development took a toll on both creeks, but Golf Creek suffered the most. While lumber baron Robert Filberg preserved a large chunk of green space for a golf course, through which the creek still flows today, residential development above the golf course buried the creek’s headwaters, and a shopping mall buried a short portion below the course.
But the creek was still alive.
In the 1960s and 1970s, long-time Comox Residents Greg Rohne and Ted Edwards remember seeing fish in the creek, and watching tiny newly-hatched salmon fry. Another long-time resident, Gordon Olsen remembers catching fish in the creek as a teenager.
The creek was still natural below the Comox Mall when the BC Legislature passed the Riparian Areas Regulation (RAR) in July of 2004. It added stricter protections for provincial waters than the previous Streamside Protection Regulations of 1997, which compelled local governments to “protect streamside protection and enhancement areas” from residential, commercial and industrial development.
That should have prevented the town from allowing more of Golf Creek to be buried in pipes, but it did not. The RAR’s accompanying regulations weren’t issued until March 31, 2005.
A few months after the RAR was enacted, Berwick was granted a development permit that included permission to build over Golf Creek. And a building permit was issued on Jan. 4, 2005, just weeks before the enforcing regulations came into effect.
Beyond erosion, health concerns
Leigh Holmes, a retired professional engineer, has lived near the mouth of Golf Creek, about 200 metres downstream from the McDonalds, since 1998. In an affidavit sworn for the McDonalds’ lawsuit, Holmes says the creek has been turned into a sewer.
When a thick white foam coated the surface of the creek in 2002, Holmes “discovered that the Fire Hall was testing foam fire retardant during training and that they had hosed the excess foam into a nearby road gutter.”
Three weeks ago, CFB Comox announced it would conduct precautionary groundwater testing after a toxic substance found in firefighting foams, known as PFAS, was detected in nearby groundwater and Scales Creek.
In his affidavit, Holmes said “the creek is virtually devoid of life and is heavily polluted. The Town of Comox has transformed what once gave sustenance to people for hundreds of years into an open sewer.”
McDonald had concerns about water quality in the creek, because his granddaughter frequently played in it. He took a water sample on Sept. 7 and had it analyzed by Maxxam Analytics in Burnaby and the results interpreted by Victoria biochemist C.A. Sigmund.
Sigmund found high concentrations of nine metal ions, including mercury and copper, and he found an extremely high fecal coliform count, possibly through cross-contamination from town sewer pipes, and most probably from pets, birds and deer, which are abundant in Comox.
The expert noted that the data represented a snapshot in time. He recommended that water quality should be monitored regularly for 12 months, and that point sources of contamination should be identified.
This has not been done, in spite of the fact that the town was repeatedly advised to do water quality testing as far back as a 1999 Koers and Associates Stormwater Drainage Study commissioned by the town.
Even now, the town has not monitored Golf Creek water quality.
The McDonalds commissioned a study by Dr. Richard Horner, an international expert on stormwater located in Seattle, Washington, to analyze the town’s stormwater discharges into Golf Creek and their role in the erosion of McDonalds’ property. Horner assessed nine separate engineering consultant studies between 1992 and 2014 in his analysis.
Horner found the town “ignored recommendations from its consultants, and even its own Official Community Plan that could have prevented or at least arrested the erosion of Golf Creek and the delivery of urban pollutants to Comox Harbour.”
Horner pointed to three reports that specifically recommended an upstream detention pond or other water control measures. He noted three others that recommended water quality monitoring programs.
The town did take some action to divert stormwater from Golf Creek, but Horner found “the actions the Town of Comox did take have been relatively ineffective in addressing the channel erosion and water quality problems created by permitting development without stormwater runoff mitigation.”
Lessons from Golf Creek
The McDonalds say they care about the environment of their community. They have begun a project to construct a net-zero-energy addition to their home, which will create roughly the same amount of energy or more than it consumes. Their home will also manage most of its stormwater via a green roof, a 3,000 gallon rainwater harvesting system and a pervious paver driveway.
McDonald sees himself as a warrior for change.
“There are three ways to get local governments to improve their stormwater practices … using education, a carrot, or a stick. Some municipalities respond to education, some won’t move until the province hands over bags of money, and sadly, others only change when compelled to do so by a judge.
“Our hope is that the new mayor and council will respond to education.”
The tale of Golf Creek may represent a bad case of urban planning gone wrong, but it is not an isolated case. Over the last several decades, many Comox Valley creeks and streams have disappeared from view and are now in pipes under parking lots, buildings and roadways.
And it’s not an unwarranted fear that without a change in development practices by municipal planning and engineering staffs, and given the region’s rapid rate of population growth, every creek or stream in the Comox Valley could be polluted to death. Many more could disappear entirely despite the tireless work of hundreds of volunteer stream keepers.
Golf Creek may never have fish again. But McDonald hopes to force better stormwater practices by the town that could still help protect Brooklyn Creek and Cathrew Creek, and other Comox Valley waters from dying the same death.
The Town of Comox did not respond to a request for comment on this story. But a lawyer for the Municipal Insurance Association of British Columbia did respond saying “our office has no comment until this court matter ceases.”