Mission Creek restoration promises hope for Okanagan Lake and wildlife

It could improve kokanee stock, it will bolster an ecosystem and, if it can be done along the entire Greenway, it just might stop the floods

Jogging along the Mission Creek Greenway in the early morning this spring, it was possible to catch sight of a rare species.

Just north and south of Casorso Road was a crop of scientists, and at times a photographer, willing to roll out of bed before most of us have even considered a cup of coffee and wade into the cold mud to count birds, survey plants, seek out amphibians and reptiles, and map their habitat.

The team from Ecoscape Environmental Consulting are spending several months writing a prescription for Kelowna to heal a section of wetland in hopes government, or potentially the community at large, will invest in a restoration project unprecedented in the Okanagan. And from the scientists’ point of view, it is a solid investment.

“Wetlands are easier (to restore) than habitat upland. As long as you have water, there are fewer invasive weed species likely to grow,” said biologist Kyle Hawes.

Hawes has a unique background. His grandmother took him out bird watching as a child and listening for the call of specific birds stuck. Songbird mixed tapes on long road trips, not to mention the master’s degree he did on dragon flies, and the inventory of bird calls he has logged on his phone, have him uniquely equipped to see the nuances and hear the language of the forest.

At 5 a.m., the sound of the birds—Spotted Sandpiper, Northern Flicker, European Starling, Yellow Warbler, American Goldfinch, Red-winged Blackbird, Carolina Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Willow Flycatcher, Mallard, Swainson’s Thrush, Violet-green Swallow to name just a few—is deafening.

The males call back and forth, laying down their territory, letting each other know where they’re at as they set up for mating, nesting and fledging.

Over the course of their time in this marshy land, the biologists have found Blue-listed, or vulnerable, species like the Great Basin spadefoot toad, the Western screech owl and the Lance-Tipped Darner dragonfly. The area’s characteristic Cottonwood ecosystem is also a rarity in B.C. And then there are the Kokanee.

“The Mission Creek Restoration Project started in the late ’90s and it was very much a fish-centric project,” said Todd Cashin, City of Kelowna, environment and agriculture department division.

Kokanee salmon are a keystone species in the Okanagan. They feed the big rainbow trout anglers like to snag off Rattlesnake Island, and they’re culturally significant, providing an aesthetic appeal one cannot flesh out in other species. Missing plankton or bugs doesn’t enthrall audiences, whereas the kokanee’s decline is food for an elementary school paint-in.

Whether one explains it by talking about kokanee loss or nitrogen levels, Okanagan Lake is not at peak health and restoring the creek's wetland environment could really help.

“What is in the lake is like McDonald’s food and we need to get it back to organic greens,” said Cashin, quoting a colleague who mentored him early on.

In addition to the more touchy-feely aspects of improving the creek-side environment—like the relaxing impact bolstering the number of songbirds might have for those strolling the trail or the cooling effect of building a plant community with more shade for runners and cyclists—a vigorous wetland habitat would improve water quality in the lake as it acts as a filter.

Funding moving forward should come from the floods, if all goes as planned.

Prior to 2007, Mission Creek rarely flowed at 100 cubic metres per second or higher; it’s now a routine occurrence and has reached 130 cubic metres per second.

With farming and hiking, soccer and baseball, housing and critical biodiversity all competing in the corridor, this is an important area and it would appear our annual melt exceeds the abilities of the corridor’s dikes.

“I wouldn’t say anybody has concluded that climate change is having a significant effect just yet, but we are seeing some pretty crazy flows compared to what we’ve seen in the past,” said Cashin.

The city would like to move the dikes back and mitigate the damage by drawing on the advantages the wetland ecosystem.

This could mean adding notches to new oxbows, or river bends, to provide overflow into a marsh with a secondary dike behind. It could mean stretching the width of the dike in different areas along the course of the creek, compensating in some places for what development has sewn up in others.

Either way, the flood pitch, and the need to fix the dikes, draws dollars.

And so the scientist are hard at work. Using what looks like a bullseye in their inventory to make a very specific map of every species they find, the biologists try to establish the best landscape plan to ensure the habitat created provides the critical breeding ground and biodiversity its capable of.

The United Nations Milllennium Ecosystem Assessment found wetlands have suffered more environmental degradation than any other ecosystem on Earth, and in the Okanagan, it’s estimated 84 per cent of our low-elevation wetlands have already been lost.

The restoration initiative initially addresses an area between the Gordon and Casorso bridges along Mission Creek, but it could potentially run the whole 11-kilometre stretch of the Mission Creek Greenway with the proper backing.

It is a tricky project. Plants will need to be selected to specifically support species in each micro-ecosystem. Fish will be blocked from one area to support amphibians in another. The biologists will have to find the Spade Foot’s home to ensure it is protected in their prescription for the area and critical nests will be marked to save from the engineer’s dike plan. Homeowners’ property lines will render some options moot and future development will have to be considered.

In the end, it could turn out the photographer following the biologist may have the most critical role. Actually executing these plans, let alone doing the same for the entire 11-kilometre stretch to follow, will be a very costly affair.

The city has, thus, sponsored a website: Mission Creek Restoration Initiative.

They’re putting up historic photos, capturing children painting the kokanee run, and generally trying to make the entire initiative as politically appealing as possible.

“We’re trying to get the heartstrings,” said Cashin.

He’s reticent to even give an end date for the pilot project.

With funding, all the fish and the owls and turtles and the birds nests will flourish. Without, hours of work from uniquely talented individuals, not to mention an incredible environmental asset, could be lost and 10 years of work in Okanagan Lake might not see its full potential.

—photos by Andrew Barton

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