Critics question Fraser River gravel plan

Gravel removal from the Fraser River is back in the news.

After a period of relative quiet, cancellation of a gravel removal operation at Tranmer Bar near Chilliwack renewed the charge by critics that gravel mining in the river is driven by commercial interests rather than flood protection.

John Werring, a member of the Fraser River Stewardship Gravel Committee, said he was told by B.C. government officials that the Tranmer Bar operation was cancelled because no buyer for the gravel could be found.

“How is it that a provincial government, with all its resources … is not able to pull together the resources to take care of that emergency,” said.

“If this is an emergency … call in the army,” he said.

But a spokesman at Emergency Management B.C. said the reason for the cancellation was a request by federal fisheries for “additional information,” which pushed the project beyond the “window” for in-river work.

Without a completed permit, not even the government, could go ahead and remove the gravel despite market conditions, the spokesman told The Progress on a background basis.

Chilliwack MLA John Les, who has long pushed for gravel removal to reduce the risk of flooding, lambasted critics for telling the public that the government aims to prevent flooding by mining gravel from one specific site.

He said the idea is to remove gravel from many sites around the river reach from Hope to Abbotsford to “unplug” the river and lower water levels.

“Many children understand, if you let (gravel build-up) to continue, it will plug up the river … and one of these years the inevitable will happen,” he said.

Les said the Tranmer Bar permit was completed “far too late” to allow the mining to proceed.

He said the bar has been mined before, “but this year, for whatever reason, the permit wasn’t completed by Jan. 22.”

“Everyone is concerned about the fish,” he added, but despite several years of gravel removal operations in the Fraser, record returns are being reported.

Werring said the Tranmer Bar is “unique habitat” for sockeye salmon and other fish species not found in other parts of the river. It may also be habitat for sturgeon, he said.

If the Fraser River floods next year because gravel was not removed at Tranmer Bar this year, he said the B.C. government is going to find itself in an embarrassing position with the “lame excuse” that no gravel was removed because no contractor could be found.

He said he hoped the real reason for the cancellation was the influence of the stewardship committee and others on government officials, and will eventually lead to a long-term, multi-year plan, agreed upon by everyone.

“We’re not opposed to gravel removal from the Fraser River, if it’s necessary for flood protection,” he said.

Meanwhile, a letter of agreement between federal fisheries and the B.C. government on gravel removal operations expired in March, 2009. A one-year extension was approved to March, 2010.

But no B.C. officials were available last week to explain the delay in reaching a new agreement.

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