The Jordan River was once brimming with salmon, until three industries changed it forever

Restoration efforts are slow going, but changes in industrial practice could help bring it back

By Jolene Rudisuela
February 14, 2022

The Jordan River was once brimming with salmon, until three industries changed it forever

Restoration efforts are slow going, but changes in industrial practice could help bring it back

The original power station on the Jordan River. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily
The original power station on the Jordan River. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

The Jordan River was once brimming with salmon, until three industries changed it forever

Restoration efforts are slow going, but changes in industrial practice could help bring it back

By Jolene Rudisuela
February 14, 2022
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The Jordan River was once brimming with salmon, until three industries changed it forever
The original power station on the Jordan River. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

On a bluebird day, especially when there’s a large swell, the shore where the Jordan River meets the sea is alive with surfers catching waves, campers, beachcombers, and tourists passing through. 

Few things near the road alert the casual passerby to the changes that have been endured by the river for the past century, but there are hints. Where a thriving estuary should be, there’s now a log sort. Maple Bay beach has the remnants of an old pipe that pumped mine tailings out to sea. If you venture further into the forest, a graffitied husk of an old power generating station crumbles.

Beneath the surface of the river—a river that once supported thousands of fish—there is a conspicuous lack of movement. At most, on a good year, there might be a few dozen salmon venturing upstream. 

The log sort at the bottom of the Jordan River. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

For decades it’s been thought of as a lost river; a dead river, where salmon will never return. But some aren’t willing to accept that fate. 

“Dead river flowing is what it [is],” Wayne Jackaman told me from his home in Jordan River. “It’s basically dead. And if it’s not dead, it’s definitely on its last legs… So we have to really start making dramatic changes.”

Jackaman has long advocated for the river and the lost salmon, but change is happening slowly. After years of talks and studies, some improvements have been made, but the river still cannot effectively support salmon. Extinction, Jackaman said, is hard to reverse.

No one thing is responsible for virtually killing the river and wiping out its salmon. It was decades of industrial activity—a combination of power generation, mining, and forestry—that contaminated the water and devastated prime habitat.

And likewise, it won’t take just one player to revive the river. This is a problem that will require collaboration between industry partners working alongside community members, First Nations, and scientists. And it will take years. 

Undoing a century of damage is no easy feat.

***

In the traditional territory of the Pacheedaht First Nation, the banks of the Jordan River, or diitiida, once housed a seasonal fishing village where Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, and T’sou-ke fishers would fish for salmon and trout.

But by the early 1900s, the river was being scouted for another use: hydroelectricity. 

When the Diversion dam was built in 1911, it was one of the largest dams in Canada, and the powerhouse that was built on the east side of the river became the primary power source for all of Victoria. However, the damming of the river immediately restricted the flow of water down through the canyon. Sometimes the upper reaches of the river ran dry. 

Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

Fisheries biologist Dave Burt was contracted by BC Hydro in the mid 2000s to study the river, learn more about what happened, and think about how it can be restored. He’s never seen another river like the Jordan. One section, Reach 3, is full of large boulders—some the size of dump trucks—dwarfed only by the sheer rock faces along either side of the canyon. The water flows around and underneath the boulders on its way down. 

Burt said he wouldn’t recommend trying to get to this area when the flows are high. 

Reach 3 and above would have the potential to become the perfect spawning and rearing habitat for strong jumpers like coho salmon and steelhead trout, if it weren’t for the obstacles. The massive glacial boulders, Burt says, are fairly unique to the Jordan, but the effect they have on the river has become more severe since intense releases of water from the dam upstream scoured the streambed around them. Even for the strong swimmers, Reach 3 is impassable when flows are too high or too low, and a 4.6-metre-high waterfall at the top blocks access to the calmer, gravely pools above. The historic spawning areas lower down in the river are no longer usable.

Diagram from the 2014 Assessment of Gravel Quantity study from the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program. (Submitted)

Before the 1950s, fish counts were high. The average run of coho salmon saw about 750 fish; chum runs saw an average of 1,500. Pink salmon, which have a two-year cycle, averaged 3,000 on peak years. First Nations Elders have said that the river once supported over 10,000 salmon alone—“At certain times you got in there you could almost kick them out of the water,” T’Sou-ke Elder Frank Planes said in 2000 during consultations for BC Hydro’s Water Use Plan—making it one of the most productive salmon-spawning rivers on the South Island.

Still, despite the dam’s effects on the river, salmon were able to survive and spawn. It wasn’t until another industry ramped up operations in the watershed that salmon populations were completely lost. And further management of river flows could ensure that they would stay that way. 

***

Sitting about three kilometres above the mouth of the river is the Sunro Copper Mine, a mine that produced over 1.4 million tons of copper, gold, and silver in its heyday. It’s been closed since 1977, but contaminants leaching from the mine are still very much present. 

It’s hard to say exactly what killed off the salmon, Burt said, but copper contamination certainly played a major role. Records beginning in the 1930s show salmon populations were steady until 1952, when numbers suddenly tanked. 

A decade later, coho and chum populations were completely extinct in the river. 

Graph from a 2015 report for the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program
(Submitted)

“The only logical explanation is that that’s when the copper toxicity started,” Burt said. “And it basically just wiped them out.”

Pink salmon, which are smaller and don’t need nearly as much space to spawn, lasted longer by returning to the isolated 500-metre water channel which carried uncontaminated water away from BC Hydro’s original power generating station. Once that was decommissioned, however, their numbers quickly dropped off, too. Pinks were observed in 1970 for the last time. 

Exploration of mining for copper and gold started in the early 1900s, but operations were infrequent until 1961 when Cowichan Copper took over and expanded the mine to include an underground ore processing mill and a two-kilometre-long access tunnel.

The original power station on the Jordan River was decommissioned in the 1970s after the Elliott Dam and a new power station were built. The graffitied husk of the building still stands. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

Ramping up of mining activity meant that the river became contaminated with dissolved copper, which leached into the river from an 80-metre-long ore deposit, upriver from where the majority of salmon would return to spawn. 

Copper contamination does not prevent fish from spawning or the eggs from surviving, Burt explains, but it cuts them down in their youth: the juvenile salmon in their rearing stages can’t tolerate high levels of copper.  

In 1962-63, the problem only got worse when a section of mine underneath the river collapsed. 

After the mine collapsed in the 1960s, a new channel was blasted to divert the river around the mine site. Photo: Dave Burt (Submitted)

Bjorn Olsen, president of New Sunro Copper Ltd. and current claim holder at the site, explained that miners had worked their way down 400 feet to get at an ore body underneath the river. They dug down so they could come up beside and underneath it—but, ignoring an engineer's advice to add ground support, they went too far. During a blast, the roof of the tunnel collapsed, causing the river to rush into the mine for three full days, pushing mine material downstream.

A new channel was blasted into the side of the canyon to divert the river around the mine site, as miners worked to plug the hole. They used everything they could find—mine deposits, gravel, old broken down equipment, cars—then covered it with cement. 

“But it’s pretty impossible to cover an area in cement and hope that it doesn’t have a little crack somewhere,” Olsen said. 

Attempts have been made to fix the leak, but water is still making its way in—and out—of the mine.

***

There’s been restoration work on a much larger scale, too. But it’s been about four years since the Jordan River Watershed Roundtable last met.

The roundtable—which included community members, scientists, environmental organizations, First Nations, government representatives, and representatives from the mining, power, and forestry industries—wasn’t very successful at creating change, Jackaman said. It was a good attempt but just didn’t have legs. 

“It is an industrial watershed, and, unfortunately, I think that makes a lot of challenges because the individuals who envision the future of that watershed are the ones who are generating economic benefit,” he said. 

Looking back through the history of BC after the arrival of settlers, it’s clear the province has always been dominated by industry, said Neil Nunn, a research fellow at UBC Law School and a sessional instructor at UVic. What is now the province of BC was swept up in the gold rush more than a decade before the BC government was established, and a pattern of government facilitating industry continued and still continues to this day.

Nunn wrote his PhD thesis on the 2014 Mount Polley Mine disaster and how it is part of a pattern of ecological disruptions in the province’s history. At the beginning of this year, he began his postdoctoral research looking at the Jordan River through a similar lens, including its historical destruction and the role of the Fisheries Act.

His research is part of a broader uptick in societal concern over mining contamination since the Mount Polley disaster, when a tailings pond full of mining waste breached, spilling billions of litres of contaminated materials into the watershed. Following the failure, a 2016 auditor general report pointed out major gaps in mine monitoring and inspection processes, and called for significant mining reforms. 

Neil Nunn and his son stand overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

But Nunn says the problem runs deeper than surface-level regulatory reforms—that the very mindset of BC’s government needs to change. 

“The insight that I found through the Mount Polley disaster is that we can’t ever address this ongoing perpetuation of mass ecological destruction, until we address this primary relationship of the government serving industry,” he said. 

He and Jackaman are both adamant that they are not anti-development or anti-industry—they acknowledge they benefit as much as anyone from access to wood, metals, and power—but there is always a better way of doing things.

“There’s conflicting narratives, right, where there’s this sort of destructive force, which we approve of because we all are living the kind of lifestyle that needs power and wood and metal,” Jackaman said.

“But there’s also this destruction that’s taking place at the same time, and we’re only just trying to look for that balance.”

***

The entrance to the mine’s two-kilometre-long access tunnel stands out because it’s so obviously out of place. Remnants of mining activity, like hoses, iron rail lines, steel cylinders, and ball bearings the size of baseballs are strewn on the ground. The mostly tree-lined banks stand in sharp contrast to the lifeless, orangey-black waste rock pile that dominates the scene. On a hot day, the pile smells like hot engine oil.

Research on the pile has shown that it has occasionally slumped into the river, further contaminating the water with mining waste. 

The waste rock pile outside the access tunnel to the Sunro mine. Since this photo was taken, Teck Resources has covered the pile with a temporary liner. Photo: Dave Burt (Submitted)

Sunro mine is one of more than 100 mine sites in BC that are known to be, or potentially could be, contaminated.

At the time of the 2016 auditor general report, Sunro hadn’t been inspected in decades, despite more than 50 years of leaching contaminants into the river. In fact, the mine was deemed clean in a 1993 letter by SNC Lavalin Inc., which claimed that the final reclamation had been carried out. 

But water sampling by BC Hydro between 2005 and 2010 as part of the Jordan River Water Use Plan showed that the mine was very much still a problem. From 2005 to 2008, the concentrations downstream from the mine remained at least 20 times higher than the applicable standard of contaminants in a fish-bearing watercourse. After BC Hydro began fish flow releases in 2008, the concentration tanked but still remained above the acceptable three microgram standard. 

“There’s nothing that can kill a stream or a river better than a mine,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director of UVic’s Environmental Law Centre. 

Sandborn became involved in the Sunro mine case in 2012 when the late Metchosin resident and retired engineer Ken Farquharson approached the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) for help to identify a party responsible for the site. 

The government did not think there was an existing company that had legal liability, Sandborn said, but research by the ELC showed that there was a company that was responsible under the contaminated sites legislation: though it had never operated the mine, Teck Resources Ltd. had become liable after acquiring mining company Cominco. At the time, the land itself was also owned by Western Forest Products. 

According to the Ministry of Environment, the ministry issued a letter to Teck and Western Forest Products in 2014 to investigate and address the high-risk contamination conditions at the site. Since then, multiple ministries have worked closely with Teck to develop an environmental closure plan for the site. (The land owned by Western Forest Products has since been sold to Forebay Holdings in 2021 for $2 million. Forebay Holdings is now participating in the process as well.)

Between August to September 2021, Teck placed a liner over the waste rock pile to mitigate contamination releasing into the river. However, this is only a temporary solution, and in a statement a spokesperson said stakeholders are working to determine next steps and an environmental closure plan for the site. The ministry said reports are submitted by Teck every six months, and the latest report was satisfactory. 

Sandborn agrees that Teck has been cooperative, but the mine should never have been left uninspected for so long to begin with. 

“The thing with Sunro Mine is that [there] was just such phenomenal government negligence on that mine,” Sandborn said.

The ministry had not known who was responsible for the mine, or even that the mine was an environmental problem, until approached by the ELC. The former energy and mines minister, Bill Bennett, told the Times Colonist in 2016 that after a site is deemed “clean”—like this one was in 1993—inspections are not typically continued. 

The situation is not unique. The Mount Washington copper mine was abandoned in the ’60s and devastated the Tsolum River. Coal mines in the Elk Valley have polluted waters with selenium for decades, causing an uproar across the US border.

“Sunro mine is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the mining issues in BC and mines that have not been properly regulated,” Sandborn said. 

“Mining can be the environmental disaster gift that just keeps on giving.”

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The Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Low Carbon Innovation established the Abandoned Mines Branch in 2019 to recognize and reclaim past mining activities that pose risks today in the case that no owner has been identified. The mines are assessed and prioritized based on their risk.  

When a permittee has been identified, a reclamation and closure plan must be submitted, and the ministry collects a reclamation security from companies, which is returned when reclamation is achieved. 

Sandborn, for his part, said the efforts being made are disproportionately small compared to the size of the problem. He also questions if there is enough funding available to make a real difference, and said the ELC continues to get complaints from First Nations saying their territories are polluted and the government is not doing enough. 

“You know, as my kindergarten teacher used to say, ‘It’s time to clean up, kids.’”

***

In the ’60s, after mining activities ramped up, salmon and trout could no longer complete their life cycles in the Jordan River. Paradoxically, that’s when the alarms stopped ringing: there were no fish, so there was no longer anything to protect. 

“So, for all those years, it was a lost river,” Burt said. “And so when BC Hydro moved their generating station to the other side, nobody was raising any alarms because there were no fish in the river.”

In 1971, BC Hydro built the Elliott Dam and diverted much of the river volume to a new power station. The new station generated power on a peak load system—when energy demands are high, the station kicks in and starts to generate power for Greater Victoria.

The problem, Burt said, is that when the power station is working, it causes a large release of water, like a small flood. The powerful turbines suddenly release 60 to 65 cubic metres of water per second—more than an Olympic swimming pool per minute—for 15 minutes, before dropping back down to normal levels, closer to 0.3 or 0.4 cubic metres per second.

This flood of water rushes out through a short channel directly where the prime salmon spawning area is. Burt said the gravel that fish rely on, in these 660 metres of historical spawning habitat, has been scoured down to little more than compact, immobile stone.

Any gravel and sediment that would normally travel downstream to replace what had been lost is instead being intercepted by the Elliott Dam and reservoir upstream.

“That area’s basically not really available anymore,” he said. “And yet, that used to be the most important spawning habitat—that was the largest spawning area in the whole river at one time.”

The Elliott Dam releases a constant 0.3 cubic metres of water per second to ensure there is enough water in the river for fish to survive. Photo: Dave Burt / Submitted

Burt said BC Hydro’s implementation of a constant fish flow release has been an instrumental change that has both kept the river at a more constant level, and has helped to dilute dissolved copper to nearly acceptable levels. 

But what’s less easily solved is the lack of usable habitat left in the river. 

In 2017, new gravel and a spawning platform was added below the powerhouse as part of a BC Hydro-funded project, positioned so it would be the most sheltered from the heavy flows. Burt hasn’t been back recently to see how much gravel remains or if it has been used, but last he checked in the summer of 2021, about half the amount remained.

BC Hydro declined an interview request, but said in a statement that it does not undertake gravel monitoring in the lower Jordan River, but such work can be carried out under the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program. 

Burt says in recent years there has not been funding to go back and reassess the site or conduct salmon surveys because Western Forest Products would not provide access to their land. The restoration efforts, he wrote in an email, were "dead in the water” without permission from the company. The new land owners, Forebay Holdings, have been very cooperative, he added. 

Western Forest Products also declined an interview request. A spokesperson said in a written statement that the property has some steep drops to the river, and that access was provided under strict adherence to health and safety protocols. The spokesperson declined to say whether Western Forest Products has aided in the Jordan River restoration effort.

***

In 2017, Burt waded out into the river in rubber hip waders as he had many times before, electrofishing equipment in hand, ready to sample the fish in the area. 

He counted 60 coho salmon—the second year in a row where he’d noted a good return. It seemed like progress.

“The next summer, I was expecting to find all these coho fry—and I found like one or two,” he said. “I was just so disappointed because that was our best adult return. And the following year, there was nothing.”

He said the fish were likely wiped out due to a bad flood that winter. In heavy storms, BC Hydro’s reservoirs fill rapidly, and excess water flows over the dams and down the river. It’s the same process that was seen across the province during the November 2021 storms, when torrents of rain came down, washing out highways and roads, causing extreme flooding, and sending thousands of litres of water rushing down the Jordan River. 

BC Hydro said in a statement that it tries to make room for the expected extra water when a storm is coming, but that there’s only so much it can do.

Conditions on the river are challenging, and right now Burt and his teams are working with what they have to come up with creative solutions. 

In 2015, Burt played an instrumental role in creating a restoration plan for fish and fish habitat in the river, and his ideas are slowly taking shape. 

To give fish a more secluded place to spawn and rear, a project is currently in the works to dig a new side channel downriver from the mine. Coho and cutthroat trout, in particular, thrive in these quiet, protected areas. 

Burt would also like to see work at the mouth of the river around where the dryland log sort has sat since the late 1960s—a consultation firm confirmed, in a 2014 CRD committee meeting, that the area no longer qualifies as an estuary—but the priority is first getting salmon numbers to stabilize.

Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

The speed at which restoration is happening is frustrating, Burt said, but things are starting to speed up. There’s a greater understanding of what happened to the river and what is needed to fix it.

“You’ve got to keep working towards solving the problems as they come along,” he said. “And I think if we start getting more fish back in the river, then there’s going to be greater pressure for the different players to come to the table and start helping.”

Jackaman has waited so long for change that he feels considerably less optimistic. But if everyone plays their part, he still has hopes that this “dead river” can be revived. 

“It just seems that we’ve never been accountable for the damage. We’ve been driven by economics and anything that got in the way of that drive was considered expendable,” he said. “But, you know, reality is that at this point in time, those things we felt were expendable, we suddenly realized are maybe valuable for our existence.”

Correction on Feb 28, 2022: The story has also been updated to clarify that there is a waterfall at the top of Reach 3 that prevents salmon from swimming further upstream.

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