A project that took five years to complete paid off immediately during last year’s flooding.
When Yarrow was threatened during November’s atmospheric rivers, the newly-created Hooge wetlands played a crucial role holding floodwaters back, soaking up enough excess stormwater to keep nearby dikes from collapse.
It was a victory for natural flood defence.
“Last fall was devastating for people, for businesses, for agricultural operators, for farm animals and wildlife,” said George Heyman, B.C.’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, at a Thursday morning (April 21) gathering to celebrate the project. “I wish I could say that this will never happen again, but I think we all know that no matter how much we do to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, we have to prepare and we have to adapt.
“For years, as humans developed and settled, we didn’t pay enough attention to the impacts we were having on our natural environment. Now we know better, and we also know that we have a lot of work to do to repair and build for the future.”
The 2022 provincial budget contains another $30 million earmarked to improve B.C.’s watersheds. The funding will support new restoration projects to improve climate resiliency, restore and maintain ecosystem health and support reconciliation with Indigenous communities.
“The work undertaken by dozens of volunteers at the Hooge wetlands has shown the value of nature-based solutions in adapting to our changing climate,” said Chilliwack MLA Dan Coulter.
Flood mitigation was one reason for the project, but not the only reason.
The Fraser Valley Watersheds Coalition (FVWC) wanted to do more to protect and rebuild fragile fish stocks like salmon and steelhead, and the Hooge wetlands project started in 2017 with a 312-metre extension of salmon spawning habitat in Peach Creek. Then 960 metres of in-stream habitat was added in 2019. The wetlands themselves were built in 2019 and 2020, providing 2000 square metres of new rearing salmon habitat.
“Off-channel habitats give refuge to spawning salmon in fast-moving waters,” Coulter noted. “Protecting and promoting the biodiversity of the Fraser Valley is crucial to ensuring the health of our watersheds.”
“Our water is a precious resource, and healthy watersheds make for healthier communities,” added Chilliwack-Kent MLA Kelli Paddon.
At one point, hundreds of local school students were involved in the Hooge wetlands project, helping with land preparation between two dikes that run alongside the Vedder River.
Partners in the initial work included the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Environmental Damages Fund, the Canada Nature Fund for Aquatic Species at Risk, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Recreational Fisheries Conservation Partnership Program.
In 2021, the provincial government, Real Estate Foundation of B.C. and Watersheds B.C. stepped up with more money, funding the B.C. Wildlife Federation’s Wetlands Workforce Program through the Healthy Watersheds Initiative, a $27 million investment in 60 projects around B.C.
In 2021 the FVWC received $230,000, $20,000 of which was used for Hooge Wetlands/Peach Creek maintenance in what was dubbed ‘the Great Tuneup.’
A team of 11 worked a combined 5,325 hours clearing invasive vegetation from a patch of land 5,210 square metres in size. They planted 185 trees and shrubs and added bark mulch, mycorrhizae and organic fertilizer to sensitive riparian habitats.
And they hauled 121 litres of trash away from the area.
FVWC chair Matt Foy said the Hooge wetlands represent an opportunity to turn back the clock.
Decades ago, he said people made the choice to build dikes that narrowed the Vedder river and created more space for farms. The Hooge Wetlands represent a step back that he believes will prove to be a big step forward.
“We now have this beautiful corridor for recreation, flood management, and more importantly we can work to make it rich, productive habitat for valued salmon resources,” he said. “Hopefully we can push back on some decisions made 100 years ago that perhaps worked in the short term, but weren’t good for the long term.”