Could Kus-kus-sum go coastal?

Could Kus-kus-sum go coastal?

Photo: A view of the Campbell River estuary as it was in 1989, before restoration. Courtesy of Tim Ennis

 

The importance of the planned restoration of the Fields Sawmill site may well go beyond repairing a blight on the Comox Valley’s image. It’s likely to influence the prospects of a coast-wide approach to replacing multiple forest industry eyesores with ecological assets.

The remnants of early-20th century logging practices can be found all up and down Vancouver Island’s coastlines in the persona of abandoned sawmills, which were almost always located in estuaries.

These shuttered mills that once buzzed around the clock, cutting logs into usable lumber, have fallen victim to government policies that allow the export of raw logs, and to changing industry practices.

In the early 1900s, timber companies moved their logs by rail to larger rivers where they were dumped into the river, boomed, then towed by tugboats to sawmills located in estuaries. While booming adored our beaches with interesting collections of driftwood, it was inefficient and slow.

That practice still goes on in the Fraser River and in the Nanaimo and Ladysmith areas. But most Island logging has now moved toward truck-based transportation. It’s flexible, less expensive more reliable.

The change means sawmills no longer need to be located in intertidal environments. And that, in turn, means there’s an opportunity to restore those shorelines and estuaries to their natural habitat, and create functioning ecosystems for fish and other wildlife.

A view of the Campbell River estuary in 2016, after restoration

If Project Watershed — the nonprofit leading Field Sawmill project, called Kus-kus-sum to honor an ancient First Nations village across the river — succeeds in raising the $6.5 million it needs to purchase the property and restore it, other communities will be inspired to seize their own opportunities.

And there are plenty of them.

Closed sawmills

In Tahsis, there are concrete slabs where two former sawmills once operated on the estuary. They closed down in 2001 and 2003. The Gold River Bowater pulp mill, also located on a river, closed in 1999.

In Port Alberni, the Somass sawmill officially closed in August, but has been essentially shut down for a year. The APD mill there is down to just one shift of workers per day. Both are located on the Alberni inlet.

The Campbell River pulp mill sits empty on about a mile of prime shoreline.

While the loss of jobs devastated those small towns, they have reinvented themselves as destinations for tourism and sport fishing. Reclaiming the abandoned mill sites would help, not hinder, their economic prosperity.

Tim Ennis, senior project manager for the Kus-kus-sum project, believes there may be many opportunities on the B.C. coast to restore former sawmill sites located in estuaries, without negative impacts to the forest economy.

That’s because trucking has replaced marine-based transport as the preferred method of transporting logs and newer government regulations are more restrictive in estuarine environments. So the forest industry doesn’t rely on the use of estuaries as it did in the past.

Campbell River led the way

Project Watershed has viewed the restoration of three sawmill sites in the Campbell River estuary as a model for their Kus-kus-sum project.

Ennis managed the Campbell River project. At the time, he was the director of land stewardship for the B.C. region of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which purchased the former Raven Lumber sawmill property as well as two smaller operations in the estuary.

He is now the senior project manager for Kus-kus-sum, as well as the executive director of the Comox Valley Land Trust, and brings his experience from much larger restoration projects.

“Compared to the Campbell River situation,” Ennis said. “The Field Sawmill site does not appear to be nearly as complex to restore and offers a huge potential benefit for the community.”

The projects are similar, he said, in that both are being led by nonprofit organizations. One of the Campbell River mills, known locally as Ocean Blue, closely resembled the Field Sawmill site, including a solid wall fronting the river.

But there are also critical differences.

The Campbell River City Council was committed to de-industrializing the river estuary. The city created an estuary management commission, which developed an estuary management plan. That plan included a conscious effort to relocate industrial operations away from the estuary.

So there was considerable political support in Campbell River, which was matched by the city’s financial contribution of approximately 25 percent of the land acquisition costs.

The City of Courtenay, on the other hand, was not the source of inspiration for restoring the Fields Sawmill site. Kus-kus-sum has been primarily driven by NGO and First Nations leadership.

And the City Council has not yet committed itself to any degree of financial support toward acquisition costs.

They have waived property taxes for two years while Project Watershed raises acquisition funds. But the eventual title will name the city as part owners of the property.

Nor has the Town of Comox or the Comox Valley Regional District made commitments, both of which stand to benefit as much as Courtenay from eliminating this eyesore on a main transportation corridor.

Fortunately, the K’omoks First Nations are committed and strong partners on the Kus-kus-sum project.

Not only are the K’omoks chief, council, band administration and Guardian Watchman department onside, nearly every K’omoks band member has signed a petition supporting the cause.

The Campbell River Indian Band was not as active.

If Kus-kus-sum succeeds, it will build on the restoration momentum from Campbell River, and set the stage for a much grander opportunity: to inspire and support the restoration of other abandoned sawmill sites throughout the B.C. coast.

How you can help

Kus-kus-sum needs community financial support in order to leverage the millions of dollars needed from granting organizations and the federal and provincial governments. Their website makes it easy to donate.

 

The Ocean Blue site in Campbell River before restoration

The Ocean Blue site after restoration

 

Proposed South Sewer pipe to take harmful route

Proposed South Sewer pipe to take harmful route

Advance voting is underway for the June 18 referendum when Royston and Union Bay voters will decide whether to tax themselves to build and connect to a community wastewater system.

To clear up some of the misinformation about this Comox Valley Regional District sewerage initiative, Project Watershed Technical Director Dan Bowen and I had a meeting this week with Kris LaRose.

La Rose is the CVRD’s manager of liquid waste planning, and the project manager for the South Sewer Project (SSP).

The meeting immediately made one thing crystal clear: residents will not vote to approve a specific plan, such as where to locate the treatment plant or how to route the pipeline connecting the system to an outfall. La Rose said those details are not definitive. They have changed, and could change again.

This is a referendum about money. Do residents want to pay more than $2,000 a year for 30 years to build the system, and then another one-time expense ranging from $2,000 to $12,000 to connect to it? Or, by voting “no,” do they prefer to pay to upgrade their own septic systems?

The June 18 referendum cannot be interpreted as community approval of the plan. It will only reasonably conclude whether voters want to pay for constructing a system of indefinite design.

Bowen and I came away from the meeting with mixed feelings.

Project Watershed and other Valley environmentalists don’t want any new pipelines through the K’omoks estuary or Baynes Sound. And, we want existing pipelines removed, and rerouted through less risky overland routes.

South Pipe RouteBut Project Watershed also opposes the route proposed for the South Sewer Project’s pipeline that originates near the end of Marine Drive South.

Why? Because if voters pass the referendum, the pipeline would cut through the Trent River Estuary, an important wildlife habitat area. It will also pass through a salt marsh and across an area where the group has spent nearly $200,000 to sub-tidally reestablish eelgrass and other marine vegetation.

A better route for the pipeline, if there has to be one, would originate further south, avoiding the estuary and the new eelgrass beds. That would take a straighter and shorter line to the point where the pipe crosses the Comox sand bar — only 15 feet below the surface at low tide — enroute to connect with the outfall at the Brent Road treatment plant.

Once the proposed pipeline from the SSP reaches the treatment plant, it would bypass treatment, and join the existing three-kilometre outfall pipe that runs about a metre under the Point Holmes beach, until it turns offshore at the bottom of the bluff at the end of the CFB Comox runway.

La Rose said the CVRD would entertain a presentation from Project Watershed on revising the early part of the route, and that’s encouraging. The connection to the existing outfall at Brent Road is set in stone.

There’s been some confusion about the location of the existing outfall, perhaps because it’s wrongly mapped in the CVRD’s own 2011 Sewage Master Plan.

A map inserted into the SMP (between pages 10 and 11) incorrectly shows the outfall turning offshore in line with Southwind Road, far short of the boat launch and its actual location below the bluff and the airport.

Putting miles of new pipe in a sensitive marine environment doesn’t make sense, except that the safer overland route through the Courtenay pump station #1 comes with a higher price tag. But can we put a value on preserving the Valley’s natural assets?

On the other hand, La Rose said the wastewater from the proposed new SSP treatment plant would be cleaned to reclaimed water level, much higher than the degree of cleaning at the Brent Road treatment plant. But the SSP effluent would only amount to about 10 percent of the total flow through the combined outfall.

And, of course, none of this water will be reclaimed. The proposal is to pump it into the Strait of Georgia.

But even with the better treatment, the proposed new plant would not remove pharmaceuticals or nitrates. Studies show that it’s harmful to pour unnecessarily high levels of these chemicals into our oceans, which eventually make their way back to humans through the food chain.

That raises the question why the CVRD has not yet upgraded treatment levels at the Brent Road plant? It wasn’t leading technology in 1984, and it seriously lags the best treatment systems available today.

It’s also worrisome that the CVRD has not done detailed geomorphlology and hydrology studies about how the SSP high density poly pipeline will affect — or be affected — the Comox sand bar, which runs from Goose Spit to the islets at the tip of Denman Island.

Without these environmental studies, and definitive plant siting and pipeline routing, the results of the June 18 referendum cannot be interpreted as community approval of the plan. It will only reasonably conclude whether voters want to pay for constructing a system of indefinite design.

If the referendum passes, we hope the CVRD will engage residents and Project Watershed to collaborate on the final plan details.