To Save the Tsolum

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Charles Brandt

The sun breaks through the trees on the Tsolum River

To save the Tsolum River they first had to go to the top of the mountain. And if that sounds like something of a biblical pilgrimage, then consider this – one of the first leaders of the movement was a Roman Catholic hermit priest and the journey took decades.

It was a long, exhausting trip for the band of volunteers who set out to restore the watershed, but in the end the Tsolum River Restoration Society succeeded by winning provincial government support for a $4.5 million project to cap an old mine, on Mount Washington, that was leaching acid rock drainage.

Now, with the toxic leachate largely contained, the river is springing back to life, with insect hatches in profusion, and increasingly healthy schools of salmon fry and trout. There have even been reports that the fabled Tsolum steelhead, long thought extinct, have been caught again. Though nobody is talking openly about that.

The Mt. Washington Copper Mining Co. ran from 1964 through 1966, excavating copper ore on a small 13 hectare site, in the mountains above Courtenay, on Vancouver Island. When the company went bankrupt, it walked away, leaving a deserted mine and 940,000 tonnes of waste rock. That was the start of a toxic legacy that would last for the next 44 years. When rain fell on the ore, it brewed sulphuric acid, which in turn leached copper and other heavy metals from the slag. The acid waste drained into Pyrrhotite and Murex Creeks, which cascaded down the mountain into the Tsolum River. And soon young fish were gasping for life.

The acid rock drainage damaged their olfactory systems of the young salmon, it robbed them of food by killing off insects, and for those that survived to become adults, the taste of it made they turn away from the river when they came back from the ocean to spawn.

The fish would come into the river but then they would back out . . .they would avoid the system , says Jack Minard, Executive Director of the Tsolum River Restoration Society.

By 1985 the once productive salmon river was pretty much vacant of life. Instead of 200,000 pink salmon, 11,000 chum and 15,000 coho, the river had only a handful of fish. Some years there were no spawning salmon. And the steelhead, which had reached sizes of 10 kilograms, went from a run of 3,500 to nothing.

It was this lonely, dead river, said Mr. Minard.

Dead but not forgotten.

Starting in the 1980’s, local volunteers, led at first by Father Charles Brandt, a hermit-priest who lives in a cabin on the Oyster River, began to work at restoring the river. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans was a key partner, but attempt to reboot the river with hatchery stockings didn’t work. One year 2.5 million pink salmon were released in the river. None came back. It wasn’t until 1985 that people figured out what was wrong. That year a study concluded that although the river looked clean and beautiful, it was laced with so much copper it was toxic.

The Tsolum River under a bright blue sky

Efforts were made to turn off the problem. A mountain of waste rock was gathered, mixed with lime to neutralize the acid, and covered with gravel and clay. That slightly improved the water quality in the Tsolum, but copper concentrations remained too high for fish to flourish.

The Tsolum River Partnership (a coalition which brought together the provincial and federal government, TimberWest, the Mining Association of B.C. and the Tsolum River Restoration Society) discussed possibly flooding the mine site, to seal cut off oxygen from the ore. They thought of casing the mine in concrete; digging an array of trenches to funnel water away from the site, or collecting the pollution in a pipeline and sending it to a treatment plant. But none of the proposals seemed reasonable. The treatment plant, for example, would have needed to operate for thousands of years.

Acid mines last a long time, said Mr. Minard. The Romans mined on the Thames River and that site is still generating acid rock drainage, 3,000 years later.

In 2008, however, the provincial government agreed on a plan to cap the mine site with a waterproof seal, made of polyester impregnated with bitumen, that is rolled out like a giant carpet. Lock out the water and oxygen, the experts said, and you will stop the generation of sulphuric acid.

Once the cap was in place, river volunteers noted an amazing improvement in the river. May flies were hatching in clouds. And when the salmon came back in the fall, they stayed to spawn.

We have not exceeded our target of 11 parts per billion for dissolved copper in the river since the membrane was installed, says Mr. Minard. We have seen a substantial change. The best way to say it, is now water quality is not an issue.

For more than 40 years the Tsolum was toxic to salmon. Now the water is clean.

Last year 1,000 coho returned.

That is amazing. We haven’t had those numbers since 1959, said Mr. Minard.

Although steelhead were thought to be extinct, there have been whispered reports of some being caught this year. Chum and pink salmon haven’t rebounded yet, but Mr. Minard believes that is going to happen soon. There are still problems on the river. Summer flows are too low and large slugs of gravel, deposited because of excessive logging in years past, are shifting in the river. In flood, the gravel moves so much incubating salmon eggs are getting crushed. But the pilgrims who set out years ago to save the river aren’t done yet. They have plans to store water for slow release in the summer, and are planting shrubs to stabilize gravel bars.

The Tsolum is on its way back.

It’s working, said Mr. Minard.

He could have said, “it’s a miracle,” but he didn’t – because he knows it was done not by magic, but by hard work and a never quit attitude.

Two fawns chase after their mother on the Tsolum River bank.