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Resurrecting the Cheakamus

Five years after the spill, Cheakamus River responding to restoration efforts



Herculean efforts to repair the damage done by a 2005 sodium hydroxide spill on the Cheakamus River in Squamish are having a positive impact on a variety of aquatic species devastated by the disaster.

The caustic chemical killed virtually everything living in the river after a CN Rail train derailed in the Cheakamus Canyon, wreaking havoc on the glacial fed system in a matter of seconds.

To repair the damage, CN joined forces with the District of Squamish, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, B.C. Ministry of Environment and Squamish Nation to form the Cheakamus Ecosystem Recovery Plan, administered by a technical committee (CERTC). Through it, CN is undertaking a number of monitoring programs to track fish populations and is working cooperatively with BC Hydro under their Water Use Plan.

To mitigate the damage, CN has put $5.3 million towards restoration efforts and made another $2 million available to community groups with a vested interest in restoration, education and recovery through its Cheakamus Ecosystem Recovery Fund (CERF). To date $1.2 million of that fund has been used by various groups, but Edith Tobe, a habitat biologist and executive director of the Squamish River Watershed Society, says access to CERF has been arduous for some organizations.

"I do feel really strongly that the funds made available by CN for the recovery of the river, that they made available to the community through the Cheakamus Ecosystem Recovery Fund, are extremely limiting in their scope and it is difficult for many groups or organizations to access those funds because they are specific for the recovery of fisheries within the Cheakamus River, pretty specifically for the Chinook fisheries within the Cheakamus River," she said. "It would be much better to be able to be a little bit more expansive and have those funds available for other groups and a little bit broader interest for the watershed."

According to CN spokesperson Kelli Svendsen, the money is earmarked for - but not restricted to - target species determined to be most affected by the spill,specifically steelhead, Chinook, char and sculpin. To qualify for CERF, groups must focus on habitat creation, restoration or assessment; stock rehabilitation and assessment; education and awareness; and community stewardship projects that take place on the Cheakamus between the Daisy Lake dam and Squamish Estuary, including tributaries. Other restrictions include a mandatory volunteer component and a requirement to include additional funding partners. To date the Squamish River Watershed Society has accessed some of the funding to complete projects on the river relating to education, channel restoration, eelgrass restoration, and a creel survey. Other organizations that have tapped into CERF include the District of Squamish, The Nature Trust, British Columbia Conservation Foundation and the Squamish Environmental Conservation Society.