The City of Port Alberni has taken over a project to replace an aging sluice gate to the McLean Mill National Historic Site’s log pond after a mishap threatened water quality in Kitsuksis Creek last week.
Volunteers with the Alberni Valley Enhancement Society were lowering the water level in the log pond adjacent to the steam-powered mill in order to remove the wooden sluice gate. When the pond drained to a certain point, though, the water turned a reddish brown colour.
Neighbours downstream of the mill became concerned when they started seeing discoloured water flowing in the creek, city CAO Tim Pley said.
West Coast Aquatic started the original stream diversion project at the mill in late 2015, in response to a provincial dam safety report that stated concerns with the small dam at the mill. Decommissioning of the sluice gate, which dated back to the 1990s, was supposed to be the final phase of the project.
The wooden gate, which controlled release of water from the mill’s log pond into the creek, was rotting and needed to be removed, AVEA spokesperson Scott Kenny said. The AVEA applied for and received a grant to complete the work.
“It was a two-day project. When we left the one day, the water in the pond was clear in colour,” Kenny said. “It was never crystal clear in the pond because there’s low flow through there.
“It looked good when we left (Tuesday),” he said. “It was a slow drain-down of the pond, there was no water coming into the pond from the new creek, so we were feeling quite confident. In the morning this iron issue came up.”
Kenny said an engineer at the site on Wednesday indicated that the discolouration of water in the log pond was iron. “The iron is released from the soil, then the bacteria feed on the iron and they created the coloured water,” Kenny explained.
City officials have taken a number of water and soil tests from the area. Raw water samples taken on Sept. 20 from Kitsuksis Creek downstream from the log pond tested positive for E.coli and Coliform bacteria, which the city said “is to be expected in a natural watercourse such as Kitsuksis Creek and levels measured are typical following a significant rain event.”
A fourth sample taken from the log pond itself indicated E.coli is not present in the log pond, according to a city press release. Island Health advises that people who get their water directly from wells, creeks, rivers or lakes should always treat their water to ensure it is fit for consumption.
Despite the test results, neither McLean Mill Society president Sheena Falconer nor Kenny are concerned that the water quality in Kitsuksis Creek will adversely affect fish in the salmon-bearing stream.
“There is still aquatic life in the pond, although the oxygen level was low,” Kenny said. “Downstream there are fish still there; we didn’t see any fish kills. We saw an eel, salmon fry, we’ve seen frogs, crayfish—so there’s no indication that downstream of the pond there’s an issue.”
“From a fish habitat standpoint, it’s fine,” he added.
A fisheries biologist was onsite Wednesday night, said Falconer, who is also executive director of West Coast Aquatic, and was involved in the initial project to redirect the creek at McLean Mill. She did not know about the sluice decommissioning until receiving a call Wednesday night that there was a problem, she said.
Natural resource officers have been to the site, Kenny said. The city is working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Northwest Hydraulic Consultants and BC Dam Safety to determine the next steps in completing the sluice decommissioning project.
This isn’t the way the city wants to become involved in a project of this scope, city CAO Tim Pley said, calling it “a little bit like an emergency incident in terms of management.”
Pley said there will be costs associated with the city taking over the project—costs the city has not budgeted for, he added.
Engineer Ken Watson has been put in charge of the remediation project. His first role was to mitigate the damage and make the site around the sluice gate safe.
“The McLean Mill Society were never aware of the project,” Pley asserted. “They should have been aware because they manage the site, and the city should have been aware because obviously it’s our property. Somewhere there’s been a gap.”
Kenny said he brought someone from the mill to the site to explain the project last spring when the AVEA was applying for a $3,500 grant, which they received for the sluice gate replacement. He admitted the last time he spoke with someone about it was last spring, and that the society likely didn’t know the timing of the replacement work.
“There’s some of the mill folks knew we were going to start the project—it’s one of three projects we’re doing out at the hatchery this year,” he said. The other projects included in-stream improvements and dealing with chum tanks at the hatchery.
said the AVEA volunteers will assist the city in finishing the sluice gate project, but that the city has taken the lead.
“The tenants on the property should not have undertaken this project,” Pley said at the Sept. 24 Port Alberni City Council meeting. “I think they know that.
“This is an unfortunate consequence of operating a site like McLean Mill at arm’s length,” he added.