Standing on top of the dam at McLean Mill National Historic Site, watching Kitsuksis Creek power downstream from the mill pond, one can see the powerful effect nature has had on the aging wooden fish ladder this winter.
Heavy rain and melting snow have overtopped the dam and the emergency overflow, smashing rocks into the fish ladder and causing havoc with the fish habitat that volunteers with the Alberni Valley Enhancement Association’s hatchery so carefully monitor.
Sadly, this is not a new story: the same scenario has played out with worsening effect over the last three winters.
Bob Cole, a member of the Alberni Valley Sportfishing Advisory Committee and also part of the Ultimate Fishing Town committee, shakes his head while surveying the damage.
“We’re getting frustrated nothing has happened yet,” Cole said.
The dam was re-built in 1996 after the federal government dredged the mill pond in preparation for opening McLean Mill as a national historic site. A swale was put in to try and alleviate flooding, but it hasn’t been effective for the kind of weather the Alberni Valley has experienced in the past few years.
Several considerations are at play in the decision-making process, Port Alberni city engineer Guy Cicon said. Fish health, dam safety and historic integrity all have important roles.
The first option under investigation is to replace the dam, which would include the fish ladder.
The second option, drawn up by Northwest Hydraulics, would be to realign the creek so it bypasses the mill pond completely. The problem with that is the steam donkey and spar tree demonstration area would have to be moved further east.
“Either option, we’ve got to take care of the fish, we’ve got to take care of the heritage value and it’s got to be safe,” Cicon said.
The dam safety inspector would like to see the dam replaced because it has been overtopped, lending urgency to the project, Cicon said. He has asked for $285,000 in the city’s 2012 budget to fix the dam; the budget has not yet been approved.
Cole said there is money available from the Ultimate Fishing Town win and wood beams donated for the work—they just need the OK from the city to move ahead.
Cicon hoped a decision could be made in the next two weeks, although construction wouldn’t begin for awhile after that.
Hatchery volunteer Jake Leyenaar fears that will be too late.
Leyenaar does not agree with the idea of re-routing the creek. “The issue to me is prove to me first that the creek was there,” he said.
Leyenaar would like to see the fish ladder replaced at the very least, to get the hatchery through the season.
He expects 12,000 to 14,000 smolts coming from the top end of the creek in the next two weeks; the fish ladder will protect them from the overflow area when it dries out, he said.
“This (ladder) does work very efficiently. We’ve been operating off of it for approximately 18 years now,” he said, despite incurring damage from flooding in recent years.
“We’ve got a few big boulders in there so right now even the steelhead couldn’t even move up.” If the problem is not rectified, it will affect the steelhead and coho runs.
And that will be a big blow to the people who have spent nearly two decades building the runs back up.
“When we started 18 years ago there were only six or eight fish going through, and now we have a high as 2,700 (coho) going through as adults,” he said.
For the first four years of operation—one natural salmon cycle—they augmented their stock with fish from Robertson Creek Hatchery. Since then, they have only used stock they placed in their own system.
“That’s still what we’re doing today.”