You won’t see many creeks or streams in Canadian cities. They’ve been buried underground in culverts to drain land for agriculture and urban development. But times are changing and communities are slowly “daylighting” their forgotten streams, creating space for nature in the midst of a concrete maze.
Bowker Creek in Greater Victoria, BC, stretches 7.9 km from its headwaters on the University of Victoria campus and Cedar Hill area, past residential neighbourhoods, schools, commercial centres, and a hospital, before meeting the ocean in Oak Bay. Only 2.9 km of the creek remains above ground. The rest is buried in culverts and pipes carrying stormwater to the ocean. Thanks to an active group of dedicated volunteers and supportive local government, the creek is slowly being restored to health.
Soren Henrich is a director of the Friends of Bowker Creek Society. He explains that the Society’s goal is to “minimize runoff and pollution, making Bowker Creek a healthy stream that supports habitat for native vegetation and wildlife, and provide a community greenway to connect neighbourhoods.” Their work supports the Capital Regional District’s Bowker Creek Initiative and the Bowker Creek Blueprint: A 100-year plan.
Each reach of the creek comes with its own specific needs and the Society works closely with neighbourhood associations to address particular issues, ranging from stormwater management and flooding to natural parks, outdoor classrooms, and the reintroduction of salmon.
When a creek is buried underground in a culvert, it can be hard to remember that its ultimate destination is the ocean. Friends of Bowker Creek raise awareness of water quality, striving to keep pollutants out of the creek, making infrastructure changes that will keep the creek banks from failing, and restoring creekside habitat and urban tree cover. The group would like to see changes to the way the District of Oak Bay manages silt discharge from the municipal works yard that is currently flowing directly into the creek and degrading the natural habitat.
Water running through a culvert moves very fast, leaving no time for the water to sink into the ground. A major rainstorm in 2021 eroded a section of the bank of the creek and required repairs to protect the neighbouring recreation centre parking lot. Rather than simply building up the banks of the creek, Friends of Bowker Creek proposed creek restoration work, a multi-use path, trees, and green space. The plan is part of a district-wide Coolkit, a joint initiative of the District of Oak Bay and the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry to engage residents in climate change solutions.
Bowker Creek is probably best known for the section that runs through a series of green spaces in Oak Bay. It’s a cool, shady area with tall trees, benches, and ducks on the creek. However, the creek banks are not natural. “Nowadays, we probably wouldn’t install concrete and rock armouring,” Soren explains. More recent work on the section of the creek running alongside the Oak Bay High School running track has a gently-sloping creek bank with gravel beds, rock weirs, creak meander, native plants, and an outdoor classroom where students help with creek restoration work and are responsible for water quality sampling.
The District of Saanich has purchased the Kings Community Nature Green Space (formerly owned by BC Hydro) to create a new park near Royal Jubilee Hospital. The creek runs freely along the west side of the land and there are plans to plant trees and create a walkway along the creek.
Chum salmon were plentiful in Bowker Creek until the early 1900s and hopefully that will be the case again in future if Friends of Bowker Creek and their partner, Peninsula Streams and Shorelines, are successful in reintroducing Chum salmon to the creek. Gravel beds in the creek have been restored and salmon eggs were placed in the creek in 2021, with plans to repeat the effort over the next two years. Hatchling salmon fry have been witnessed swimming downstream on their way to the ocean. Volunteers hope for adult spawning salmon to return to Bowker Creek in three to four years.
“People are inspired by chum salmon and their life cycle, heading out to sea and then returning,” Soren says. “We hope that if they can connect with that, it will raise awareness of the need to maintain water quality.”
In 2020, the Capital Regional District published a daylighting feasibility study for Bowker Creek, outlining opportunities for daylighting (exposing) reaches of the creek. The report takes into account a wide range of factors including nearby parks and already exposed reaches of the creek as well as areas with the potential to prevent flooding and improve stormwater management. Using the detailed information from the report, neighbourhoods are now in a position to integrate creek daylighting options into redevelopment plans and enhance greenways.
Other Urban Creeks
Initiatives to restore urban creeks are underway in a number of communities across Western Canada. A few of them are listed below:
Seine River, Winnipeg [Save Our Seine]
Nose Creek, Calgary [Why Calgary should protect the Nose Creek corridor as a new park]
Mill Creek, Edmonton
Still Creek, Burnaby (salmon)
Cougar Creek, Delta (salmon)
Spanish Banks Creek, Vancouver (salmon)
Stream Daylighting [Green Communities]
Book Review: Water Always Wins by Erica Gies [EcoFriendly West]
What’s in the Water? [EcoFriendly West]
The Fraser Estuary: A Vital Linkage Across Space and Time [EcoFriendly West]
Photo credit: cover photo - FoBC, chum eggs - Chuck Holyk
EcoFriendly West informs and encourages initiatives that support Western Canada’s natural environment through its online publication and the Nature Companion website/app. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe by email.