Have you ever wondered where the storm drains outside your house lead? Spoiler alert! These drains empty directly into local streams, creeks and rivers that can flood local fish habitats with rain water pollutants, debris and toxic chemicals that destroy biodiversity
Sometimes the impact is irreversible – or no one bothers to try. For Burnaby’s Byrne Creek it’s been a very different story, one that’s been more than 20 years in the making.
Meandering through a ravine park before emptying into the Fraser River, Byrne Creek boasts of its own Chum and Coho salmon spawning habitat. Unfortunately, it is also frequently inundated with rainwater that picks up toxic waste from the south slope of Burnaby.
In 1998, Burnaby residents were shocked to learn about the death of over 5000 fish as well as beavers and other creatures upstream from Byrne creek. The deaths were caused by the dumping of toxic chemicals in a storm drain leading to the creek.
Shaken by the incident, community members decided to become stewards of change. Within a short period, The Byrne Creek Streamkeepers and the Stream of Dreams were created – community organizations with a goal to protect and educate. And over 23 years they’ve done just that.
The Byrne Creek Streamkeepers immediately set out to restore the freshwarer habitat in the polluted stream. Decades later, they continue to monitor the creek’s water quality by surveying the bug and fish population and measuring water temperature and alkaline levels. Since their inception, the streamkeepers have been recording the spawning activity of the salmon and supplementing the population by releasing Chum fry and Coho smolts into the creek every spring.
“The water quality is poor. But we do have fish surviving. They are managing to reproduce. Perhaps someday as we feel more confident, we might try to stop releasing fish and the creek can actually continue producing fish on its own without supplementation. That is the final goal,” said Paul Cipywnyk, president of The Byrne Creek Streamkeepers.
Joining them in their quest to expand community stewardship through awareness and knowledge sharing are the members of the Stream of Dreams.
Burnaby locals Louise Towell and Joan Carne took the 1998 fish tragedy as a sign of the need for community-led watershed conservation and created the Stream of Dreams community group soon after the launch of the Byrne Streamkeepers.
“Growing up in Burnaby, I was proud of the neighbourhood we lived in. There was a beautiful creek, a frog pond and a community where we knew each other,” Towell said. However, when she returned 20 years ago the frog pond had disappeared and Byrne creek was polluted.
Towell and Carne made it their mission to boost community pride and encourage local participation in beautifying their neighbourhood through education and art.
Through their Stream of Dreams Fish on Fences initiative, school children, local residents and members of the Byrne Creek Streamkeepers came together to create 1300 wooden fish. They attached the fish to the Edmonds and Kingsway fence, creating a mural of jumping fish, symbolically bringing back to life the fish killed in the 1998 incident.
Over the past 20+ years, the Stream of Dreams group has been committed to teaching school children about the land, streams and wetlands that make up the watersheds in their neighbourhoods.
“Kids want to do whatever they can to help the environment. Kids love fish and they love Salmon. They know that this (salmon) is such an important identity piece to B.C. It’s a cultural icon. I think they’re very happy to be a part of the solution,” Towell said.
Their movement has inspired people across the nation. Organizations and community groups across Canada invite the Stream of Dreams team to their local watersheds to help them understand their role, as a community, in its protection.
The Byrne Creek Streamkeepers and Stream of Dreamswere born at a low point in the history of Byrne Creek but in the decades since they have inspired new heights of community strength.
“Community participation is really important because we have this expression that we all live in waterfront property because every single street drain connects directly to the creek. That means that everybody has to protect what goes down these creeks… all drains lead to fish habitats,” Cipywnyk said.