A delicate balance
The dusty road running beside the ancient Burns peat bog might just be the last great frontier of road construction in Metro Vancouver.
The largely rural wetlands are teeming with wildlife and waterfowl, but just metres away lies the black asphalt of the South Fraser Perimeter Road (SFPR).
The $1 billion, 40-km highway project runs along the south side of the Fraser River, extending from Highway 17 in southwest Delta to 176th Street in Surrey, with connections to Highway 1, 91, 99 and to TransLink's Golden Ears Bridge.
The SFPR's Surrey connection opened earlier this month, while South Delta's extension of Highway 17 is expected to be completed by the end of 2013.
Given the new road's proximity to sensitive wildlife areas, environmental protection was chief concern, says senior project manager Ron Lepage.
"The project went through vigorous environmental screening," he says. "We listened to stakeholder concerns right from the get-go and tried to address them as best we could."
That's why the province hired environmental coordinator Lori Leach, to ensure the project meets with minimum impact to ecology.
Leach realized just how close they were building to Mother Nature last year while working on a section of the project near River Road. There she spotted a doe trying to keep a coyote at bay from her newborn calf. She quickly dialed conservation authorities to come and help.
Ravines and sloughs run throughout South Delta and next to the SFPR, such as this one located between River Road and Burns Bog. Adrian MacNair photo.
In areas where the SFPR merges with existing road infrastructure, Leach says they created green spaces and habitat for local wildlife.
"We saw an opportunity to create some environmental enhancement features," she explains. Her team planted cat tails, native shrubs and trees, and implemented standing "snags," which are dead trees that act as important habitat for aquatic birds and mammals. There are even nesting boxes for bats, roosting nests for water fowl, and the pond and tributaries are fish-bearing.
However, local environmentalist Susan Jones dismisses the project's ecological protection efforts as nothing more than "window dressing."
"They do it right by the road where everybody can see a little pond with ducks," says Jones. "It pulls at the heart strings, so to speak.
But really, they did some major damage to farmland, bog and ravine habitat."
Jones says the SFPR runs through federal lands that is habitat to species-at-risk such as the streambank lupine plant and the Pacific water shrew.
"As far as I'm concerned it was all lip service to the environment," she says."They haven't done what they said they were going to do."
Part of the land expropriated for the highway from local farmer and historian Warren Nottingham was a migration habitat for sandhill cranes.
"The year before the construction started there were somewhere around 40," he says of the cranes in his field on the western edge of Burns Bog. "It was probably the largest number of sandhill cranes that we in the neighborhood had seen in one field."
The next year the cranes changed their migration route, though whether it had to do with construction is unknown.
"It seems as though that the activity on the highway spooked them," said Nottingham, adding some cranes have returned, but in far smaller numbers.
The new highway's proximity to Burns Bog has also caused concern among the scientific advisory panel tasked with analyzing SFPR's impact on the bog's drainage and hydrology.
John Jeglum, an expert on peatland biology, found that regardless of where the SFPR is put it would have major consequences to wildlife in the 40-square-km peat bog, which was recently designated a "Wetland of International Importance" under the Ramsar Convention.
SFPR crews installed or maintained "snags," standing dead trees which act as bird and insect habitat year-round. Adrian MacNair photo.
"A route within or immediately adjacent to the mixed conifer forest on the Bog’s western edge will have the greatest impacts on ecological integrity, through ecosystem conversion and negative edge effects," Jeglum stated in his findings.
Jones says the road was put in the wrong place, particularly in placing it so close to Burns Bog.
"The preferred route was the widening of River Road. It would have been easier and cheaper and it could have had a service road for these local businesses."
But Lepage says the work they've done on the highway is actually helpful to keep the bog from draining and that some of the softest soil and deepest peat was in Surrey, not in Delta.
Lepage also points to a new pump station they built in Tilbury with the Corporation of Delta. When fully operational, it will supply fresh water to more than 6,000 hectares of farmland, especially important in the southern-most regions of Tsawwassen where farmland has a higher salt content.
To mitigate the loss of 90 hectares of farmland by SFPR construction, the new pump station in Tilbury will move three cubic metres of water per second, which LePage says will improve intake levels and irrigation.
"So, at the very least, there's no loss in agricultural output, and that's from supplying fresh water to areas where they don't get enough."
Whenever the SFPR went through farmland, the topsoil was salvaged, and the adjacent fields were laser leveled. LePage says the SFPR worked with the Agricultural Land Commission to minimize impacts to local farming.
As well, part of the SFPR runs through five former Delta landfills. The construction team has capped the landfills, created a leachate collection system to keep it from draining into the local environment, and installed a methane gas extraction system to prevent greenhouse gasses from leaking into the atmosphere.
Mayor Lois Jackson received the 2012 Brownfielder of the Year award from the Canadian Urban Institute in September, in honour of her work to revitalize the landfills along River Road in Tilbury.
One of the properties was owned by the Corporation of Delta, inherited through a tax sale years ago. Jackson said it would have cost $20 million for the municipality to clean the site up on its own. Instead, they sold the land to a developer for $1 who then cleaned up the site, turning it into a prime industrial property.
"We are going to be receiving very valuable tax dollars from all these properties as we go into the future," says Jackson.
A deer footprint is just one of dozens of different animal tracks that can be seen just off the trail of the construction, including tiny mammals, coyotes, and the Pacific water shrew.
A Nov. 16 municipal report prepared by Delta's environmental manager found ongoing monitoring has not demonstrated any negative impacts on the Burns Bog Ecological Conservancy Area by the SFPR or fill sites.
Leach says they were mindful of the wildlife around Burns Bog, which is why they created numerous wildlife crossings in underground culverts for both large animals and smaller ones native to the area.
But Jones isn't buying it. She says the culverts were simply a cheaper option than bridges.
"It's destructive to a lot of habitat and against the whole environmental process and the mitigation compensation they had originally promised," she contends.
Nottingham tends to agree. He says the environmental assessment held up the SFPR in South Delta by a year and a half, but the final agreement was pushed through.
"For the hopes and aspirations of the people doing the environmental stuff, it got watered down quite significantly," he says.
In essence, the final agreement was written "after the fact," as the SFPR received environmental approval six months before the assessment was completed.
Despite that fact, Nottingham says he believes the province has taken care and consideration to monitor wildlife activity and nesting habitat.
Ultimately, he says the road had to go somewhere.
"We've been expecting this for the past 30 years, almost 40 years," says Nottingham. "The position is close to where they were always looking, it was just a matter of whether they were ever going to get around to doing it."