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Stewards look to revitalize Swan creek

Saanich waterway gets community support with creation of new Friends of Swan Creek Watershed society
Bob Cox shows a portion of Swan creek choked with invasive canary reedgrass and an old rock structure that helps improve salmon habitat. Cox

Over the past two years, Colquitz creek has been a waterway under assault. It was polluted with at least eight spills from leaky home heating oil tanks, and a significant chunk of its streambank is being excavated this month after a sustained mineral oil leak from an underground power line.

Swan creek, a lesser-known Colquitz tributary that meanders from Swan Lake to Interurban Road, has also suffered fuel contamination, prompting the emergence of a new stewardship group. The little three-kilometre creek – which has been dredged, polluted, cleared of native vegetation, choked with invasive plants, paved over and has generally suffered a thousands cuts of urbanization for decades – finally has a protector.

The Friends of Swan Creek Watershed started small, but has long-range plans to nurse the creek back to health, or as close to health as possible for a stream wedged between suburban neighbourhoods and pushed into culverts.

The “Friends” formed out of an initiative by the Peninsula Streams Society, Swan Lake-Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary and Saanich in the wake of the 1,800-litre fuel spill from a home heating oil tank in November 2011.

Last November, with the help of Saanich parks staff, a group of community volunteers cleared a section of Swan creek streambank of invasive reed canary grass and planted more than 150 native trees. This September, volunteers hope to install a series of “riffles” – a section of rocks and gravel designed to improve salmon habitat and spawning grounds.

“It’s been two hard years for fish. This year may be worse if there’s no rain until the fall. There’s not a lot of water in the creek,” remarked Bob Cox, chair of the Friends of Swan Creek Watershed. “There’s a lot of vegetation growth in the water. We’re at a typical urban stream with typical impacts.”

Swan creek will be a tough project in terms of restoring a healthy ecosystem.

But many steward volunteers live alongside the stream, and understand its value as a fish habitat and an urban corridor for wildlife.

“I’ve seen families of otters, minks and pheasants, and all the birds in the books around there,” said Art Crouse, a director with the Friends of Swan Creek Watershed who’s lived near the creek for 33 years.

“I saw a beaver a few years ago. I couldn’t believe my eyes,” added Corrine Besler, a director with her husband Michael. She said an older neighbour told her of the old days when the creek had plenty of water and fish. “It was alive.”

Cox too has insider knowledge – he retired from the Ministry of Environment in habitat protection. He helped draw up the protocols and application systems that groups submit to the ministry to work in and around waterbodies. “It’s the first time I’ve had to fill it out and apply,” he said. “It’s interesting being on the other side.”

Swan creek had sections dredged and straightened in the 1920s through the 1970s to control flooding as part of the process to create farm fields, followed by residential neighbourhoods. Swan Lake itself was badly polluted by sewage in the 1960s and from two wineries that had dumped chemicals into the lake for 40 years, which would have flowed into Swan and Colquitz creeks, and drained into Portage Inlet. “Local residents and municipal staff noted foul smells, and observed the creek running ‘red’ or ‘black’ with wastewater,” wrote Lise Townsend in a study of the Swan Lake watershed.

Fortunately, Saanich followed the recommendations of its municipal engineer from 1967, Frank Neate, to acquire a greenbelt alongside Swan creek to allow for restoration, and eventually extended that to buying Swan Lake property. During a step backwards in 1977, Monday Magazine revealed Swan creek had been dredged yet again by Saanich, between Carey and Columbine roads, against recommendations of its own staff.

These days, sections of Swan creek are now healthy enough to support a few coho venturing up from the Colquitz, although during the summer the creek dries to a weedy trickle. Ian Bruce, a biologist with the Peninsula Streams Society who initiated the Swan Creek restoration effort, wrote an assessment of the creek, and suggested building a weir on Swan Lake to allow storage of storm water and to release water into the creek during dry summer months. Neate suggested a similar plan in the 1960s.

“You’ve got coho going up and a few spawning. But (Swan) creek needs more rearing water. Summer flow is an issue,” Bruce said. “Summer water flow is so important to the lifeblood of the stream.”

Bruce said despite being “battered for probably 150 years,” much of Swan creek has the potential to be healthy by improving fish habitat. “Adding rocks and large woody debris will not just help fish, but all critters, from insects to mammals,” he said. “It’s definitely a reasonable goal to bring the creek back to a much better ecological condition.”

Volunteers with the Friends of Swan Creek Watershed are under no illusions the creek will be a quick fix. Cox said they need a full hydrological study of the watershed to understand what can and can’t be done in a complex urban area with lots of pavement and roofs.

“Stormwater is delivered to this creek like it’s through a rifle barrel,” Cox said. “The analogue is a sponge – the ground soaks water up and slowly releases it. Now it’s like a plastic cap.”

“It’s a beautiful place, but for being sustainable for fish or as aquatic habitat, it’s in rough shape,” said volunteer Craig Elder while pulling reed canary grass in Swan Creek Park. “Most places in (Swan creek) couldn’t sustain a trout or salmon in the summer. This is a 20-year project to rehabilitate this place.”

To join the Friends of Swan Creek Watershed, email Bob Cox at