John Les, Flood Protection And The Gravel Lobby

By July 4, 2013Issues, Mike Archer

By Mike Archer. It was good to hear from our retired Fraser Valley mayors this week on the subject of flooding and the need to do a better job preparing for the inevitable ‘big one.’

Abbotsford’s George Ferguson, the District of Kent’s Sylvia Pranger, and Chilliwack’s John Les and Clint Hames told Black Press reporter Jennifer Feinberg they had agreed to meet and discuss the issue as a result of the devastating floods in Alberta.

This is an old and bitterly divisive issue in the Fraser Valley and, while this may seem like a group of reasonable people coming together to propose a reasonable solution to the danger of flooding in the Valley, the truth is quite a bit more complicated than the way it is usually presented.

What could be wrong with removing gravel in order to avoid flooding?

Well; according to critics, an awful lot.

First of all; patterns and rates of sediment transfer and morphologic development in the Fraser River are poorly understood.

Secondly; due to our lack of understanding of how rivers like the Fraser work, predicting the results of gravel removal on water levels is much less certain than some would have us believe.

river gravelIn 2000 a study by the UBC Department of Geography stated, ”

  • The [gravel] reach has an exceptionally diverse aquatic ecosystem with high economic value.
  • The effect of gravel removal on these values is not understood.

The recreational opportunities and spiritual values of the riverscape are increasingly recognized. Floodplain modification and channel instability are directly related to the downstream transfer and storage of coarse alluvial sediments. Therefore, the key to improving our understanding is to examine the links between channel and floodplain morphodynamics and the contemporary sediment movement along these channels.

In 2004, in a petition to the Auditor General, Dr. David Suzuki and the Sierra Legal Defence Fund stated:

“The petitioners … question whether the proposed removals will achieve the intended flood control measures for downstream communities. The petitioners are particularly concerned about a stretch of the Fraser River known as the “Gravel Reach” and about the associated impacts on the Fraser River White Sturgeon population.”

Gravel Photo TyeeA 2008 petition by Dr. Marvin L. Rosenau stated:

“Large-scale gravel removal near Seabird Island in the lower Fraser River has damaged fish habitat, with little or no increase in flood protection.”

The bitterness between the two sides was perhaps best described in a article:

The March [2006] episode at Big Bar illustrates the clash of widely diverging views regarding the benefit of large-scale gravel extraction from the Fraser River. To some, it’s a dishonest cash grab for industry, a scourge on the earth and water; to industry and government, it is a creator of jobs and tool to protect property and people from the next great flood. The only thing that is certain in this entire heated exchange is that southwest British Columbia needs more gravel and needs it soon.*

*The Winter Olympics and the Vancouver construction boom were the political justifications for large-scale gravel extraction in the middle of the Fraser Valley during the first decade of the century. Now that both have disappeared, where is all the gravel going? Why hasn’t gravel extraction tapered off? Could a higher percentage now be being exported for profit?

In Thursday’s article Feinberg asked Les, “Some might suggest the stunt was motivated by support for gravel removal from the Fraser, where no gravel has been removed since 2010. Is it still all about gravel?”

“That is only part of it,” the former Chilliwack Mayor, Chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD), and Liberal Cabinet Minister told her.

But part of it, nonetheless.

Clint Hames was also for gravel removal from the Fraser, telling Feinberg, “Every year an estimated 230,000 cubic metres of gravel wash downriver and get deposited in the area (known as Gravel Reach).

Sylvia Pranger (centre) with former Chilliwack/Kent MLA Barry Penner (right)

Sylvia Pranger (centre) with former Chilliwack/Kent MLA Barry Penner (right)

“Gravel removal can be done right on the Fraser, at the right times and in the right locations, [he told Feinberg]. There’s no reason why the Fraser can’t have a gravel management program, like the one on the Vedder River*, Hames added.”

* Comment: The Vedder River is miniscule compared to the Fraser and most of it is man-made and self contained within diked walls. With all due respect to Mr. Hames, to compare removing gravel from the Vedder with removing it from the Fraser is more than a bit of a stretch.

According to Feinberg’s story, the former mayors said their meeting was about more than gravel:

“What is needed is better threat assessment studies, more dike upgrades, and more efforts to protect the bridges, highways, power lines, railway lines, and pipelines that crisscross the region,” said the story.

The article finishes off with a quote from John Les:

Former Chilliwack Mayor Clint Hames

Former Chilliwack Mayor Clint Hames

“Little, if anything, is done most years to manage the river. Some go so far as to say it should be left alone,” said Les, referring to the anti-gravel removal movement of conservationists espoused in the book, Sturgeon Reach.

“That type of thinking will ultimately lead to disaster. As former Mayors we want to continue to lend our support to an active flood prevention program. If the Fraser were to jump its banks, the consequences would be too horrible to contemplate,” Les told Feinberg.

Questions … Comments

A few questions and comments emerge from the foregoing.

First; a couple of comments:

1) There are a number of measures, that were mentioned in Feinberg’s article which would have definite impact on preventing future floods:

  • Better threat assessment studies
  • More dike upgrades
  • More efforts to protect the bridges, highways, power lines, railway lines, and pipelines

None of these men and women seemed to have done much about those measures during their years in office.

2) If a bit of research is done, the simple world which the four former mayors, and particularly John Les, like to to describe becomes, at a minimum much more complex and nuanced than they make it, and at worst completely different with no clear connection between gravel removal and flood mediation.

To put it even more simply that Les does; people who are paid to know what they are talking about don’t know whether removing gravel from ‘Gravel Reach’ will do anything to reduce flooding but they do know it will do a lot of damage to fish and wildlife habitat such as the unique west coast sturgeon and salmon population.

Second; a few questions for the mayors:

1) Where were you on this issue when you had a chance to do something about it?

2) What has your record in public office been on issues of gravel extraction, the environment and flooding?

3) If sufficient flood protection can be achieved without removing gravel from the Fraser would you still support those efforts? Would you still be making such a public issue of flood protection?

Former Abbotsford mayor George Ferguson

Former Abbotsford mayor George Ferguson

I would almost be willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the four retired mayors on the gravel question were it not for the active participation of at least two of them in the politics of gravel in the Fraser Valley which have done so much to favour the industry while destroying the environment in a permanent fashion.

The BC gravel industry, when it was faced with opposition to their desire to access the gravel north of Maple Ridge due to, among other things, a strong native lobby against the proposal, was somehow welcomed just about anywhere in the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD). That period coincided with the Campbell Liberal government’s rise to power and that of John Les to chair of the FVRD and the cabinet table.

The last decade has seen enormous chunks taken out of Sumas mountain and moves by the gravel industry in agricultural land and economically sensitive areas on both sides of the Fraser and up the Chilliwack River.

Local property owners and anyone who relies on local or provincial levels of government to enforce existing restrictions or protect them from the gravel industry have been left to feel powerless in the face of a system which is clearly not being used in their interests by the politicians who were elected to do so.

Chilliwack's developer mayor John Les

Chilliwack’s developer mayor John Les

The tag team of FVRD Chair John Les and Minister of Mines Randy Hawes seemed to ensure that the gravel industry had preferred treatment when it came to the conflict between industry profits and local property owners or environmentalists.

While Les sat at the cabinet table, did he do anything about ensuring the residents of the Fraser Valley were protected from the flood he now fears we are destined to endure unless the gravel companies can dig up the Fraser?

While Les was at the cabinet table, chairing the FVRD, and mayoring Chilliwack, time and again applications from the industry in environmentally sensitive areas were simply allowed to go ahead with no opposition from the only government bodies in a position to act on behalf of citizens, property owners or those who objected to the permanent damage being done.

Lexus Environmentalist Patricia Ross

Lexus Environmentalist Patricia Ross

The practice continued under Abbotsford’s Patricia Ross when she took over as chair of the FVRD. Ross voted with the rest of Abbotsford Council under former Mayor George Ferguson’s leadership to annex Sumas Mountain against the wishes and strong objections of its residents and property owners.

The reason given: the City of Abbotsford, already starting down the road to its current financial woes, needed the revenue from as many gravel mines as it could allow to operate.

Ferguson has the record as the second longest serving mayor in Canada. Les spent the last 20 years in politics and land development.

Both of them rose to fairly significant positions of political power and authority in BC Politics.

They were both certainly in a position to do something about flooding in the Fraser Valley but, somehow managed to miss the opportunities presented to them while neither missed the opportunities to promote the interests of the gravel lobby.

Forgive the cynicism of an old journalist, but listening to old politicians talk about what ought to be done now that they’re out of power makes we wonder why they’ve chosen to do so. It makes me wonder if the corporate media is, once again, being manipulated by politicians in the interests of the gravel lobby in the Fraser Valley – and only a week after the Alberta floods too.

If that is what is happening, then shame on anyone who would use citizens’ fear of the devastation which befell our friends and family in Alberta to get a timely plug in and make a quick buck for the gravel companies.

Why is this moment, of all the moments in which you could have done something to protect us, the moment you chose to, once again, lobby for gravel removal from the Fraser River?

Flood plain management and flood mitigation on one of the largest, oldest and most powerful rivers in North America is much more complicated than filling a bunch of trucks with gravel and selling them overseas. There are a great many measures, other than gravel removal, we can and should take to protect ourselves against the flood.

The better question might be – Who will protect against the gravel lobby?

Cover photo by Walter Neufeld, President of the FVRD Citizens Association.
Gravel Mt Lehman

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