Students from Laird on a field trip to Abel Creek. Photo by Lorene Keitch

Outdated culvert thwarts spawning fish

Kokanee salmon blocked from upper Abel Creek

Ben Mitchell-Banks slowly walks up Abel Creek. Rustling leaves, crackling branches, and the ever-present running water creates a peaceful soundtrack alongside the dirt road in the District of Invermere. Mr. Mitchell-Banks holds a net, eyes peeled downward for the tell-tale streak of red in the water that gives away a Kokanee salmon’s presence. He carefully scoops, dropping another one into the net.

The fish wouldn’t know it, but Mr. Mitchell-Banks is trying to save them.

Abel Creek flows approximately 4.5 kilometres from its source at Paddy Ryan Lakes in Invermere to Lake Windermere, following a course down Johnston Road, across 13th Ave., then criss-crossing Walker Lane. The creek is a prime potential spawning ground for Kokanee salmon, suggests the Lake Windermere District Rod & Gun Club. Club members have done other work on Abel Creek, including removing a dam in 2015 and fixing a culvert higher up in 2018. In between those two projects is a culvert the club asserts is causing problems for the migrating fish.

The culvert is owned by the District of Invermere (DOI). The Rod & Gun Club has brought up the issue with the District several times. The most recent was last April, when Mr. Mitchell-Banks wrote a letter on behalf of the Rod & Gun Club to staff and Council outlining his concerns that the culvert was stopping the fish from moving up to better spawning grounds. In the letter, he asked what plans the DOI has to remove the failed culvert and to put another crossing structure in place. Mr. Mitchell-Banks says the DOI needs to take action for two reasons “One is a legal responsibility. The other’s moral and ethical. These fish are important to everybody.”

Mayor Al Miller says the culvert is a concern for District Council and staff, but the problem is it is an expensive fix. DOI contracted Lotic Environmental to provide a preliminary level engineering design for the culvert, which confirmed issues with the culvert, specifically its length and pitch.

“It’s probably going to be … upwards of $175,000 to $200,000,” says Mayor Miller. “And we don’t just have dollars like that laying around.”

Mr. Mitchell-Banks doesn’t buy the lack of funding as a legitimate reason to not have the culvert fixed by now.

“If we have money to spend millions on buying that piece of lakeshore (the Athalmer land purchase), can we not find the money to do what’s right here?,” he questions.

Mayor Miller said they will be putting some money towards it, noting Council is working on the next budget right now. DOI is searching for other grants that may help cover some of the cost too.

“We want to see the health of the Abel Creek be better. And so we are going to work very hard at trying to get it into our budget and some money flowing in that direction so that we can fix it,” says Mayor Miller, but within 10 days of the club’s work on the lower Abel Creek, salmon were swimming upstream, something Mr. Mitchell-Banks says was satisfying to watch. However, they got as far as this particular culvert and could not make it through, from his observations. No fish were spotted by club members between 2016 and 2018.

The club had anticipated the culvert work being done before this year’s salmon run. When they realized that work would not be done prior to the run, the Rod & Gun Club requested a provincial fisheries permit to move the Kokanee upstream of the culvert. Volunteers went out a couple times during the short spawning period, capturing as many fish as they could find on the north side of the road and moving them upstream on the south side, far enough past the culvert that the fish would not bolt and end up stuck below again. After three rescue missions, Rod & Gun Club members had transported 36 Kokanee upstream.

The Rod & Gun Club made a formal complaint to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) about the culvert. Section 20.1 of the Federal Fisheries Act gives DFO the authority to order the municipality to deal with an issue impeding fish migration. The Pioneer reached out to DFO to request information on the process to order a municipality to conduct repairs, and whether funding would be attached to an order. In an email response, a ministry spokesperson wrote that DFO is aware of the Abel Creek culvert and “is processing the information.” No further comment on Abel Creek was provided.

Chris Prosser, District CAO, says they have talked to DFO about this creek for years, and have already worked with the federal department to try and find funding.

Back on the shoreline, Mr. Mitchell-Banks talks about the challenges of getting this creek fixed from bottom to top. A Kokanee struggles upstream to a calm pocket of water just before the culvert as Mr. Mitchell-Banks talks. Then two – no, three- can be spotted. Not one makes it through the culvert on its own, swept backwards again and again by the rushing spout from the culvert.

Downstream of this miniature drama, Ms. Green’s grade 4 / 5 class from J.A. Laird is on a field trip to the creek. Students gravitate to the banks, searching for the flash of red slicing through the water.

“I see one … look over there … right here, it’s right here … there’s a dead one!!” Their words tumble over each other like the waters below, rushing and mixing in with the sounds of other students as they clamber and careen to see the salmon.

Grade 4 student Zoe comes alongside a reporter: “We named a salmon that went through the pipe Happy” she says. “[because] he’s happy to be moving, and still alive.” She animates the fish’s movements, leaping into the air in a sort of half twisting turn, like a fish dancing its way upstream.

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