During the eighth annual syilx siwɬkʷ (Water) Forum, attendees visited a local creek which is being revived by Indigenous caretakers after a century of damage has changed the landscape and decimated salmon populations.
Coinciding with World Water Day on March 22, the event was hosted by the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) in the district of “Summerland.”
More than 100 people from around the region gathered in a circle at cnxəlkip (Sun-Oka Beach Park) before embarking on a tour of the nluxʷluxʷɬcwix (Trout Creek) restoration site, a channelized creek that feeds into kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake).
Penticton Indian Band (PIB) Chief Greg Gabriel and Tessa Terbasket of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band spoke of how sites such as cnxəlkip — which border the shores of kɬúsx̌nítkʷ — acted as villages, camping and harvesting sites for thousands of years.
“It’s where we got our sustenance, our food, the salmon runs,” said Terbasket.
smukaxen Inez Pierre of PIB, the daughter of the late Elder Joey Pierre, was joined by her uncle and Joey’s brother, Thomas Pierre.
smukaxen shared a brief history of the Pierre family bloodline and how they made their homestead around 160 years ago, building homes and cabins within reach of nearby creeks.
Being the fifth-generation in her family that has moved and lived in this area — and being Indigenous to the Okanagan — smukaxen said that there’s a spiritual connection to the land and waters that can never be taken away.
“We’re born to this area,” she said. “Our captikʷł, our stories go back and they placed us here for a reason.”
When the Kettle Valley Steam Railway opened near “Summerland” in the early 1910s, smukaxen said it was a sad time for syilx people because it opened the doorway for more settlement. She shared how her great-grandfather had told Thomas and Joey that one day, there would be a time where water would be commodified, and how her uncle has carried on that teaching.
“(My uncle) has seen the day where we have to buy water and we have to buy so many other things that we shouldn’t have to. Because people that come have bad habits and they don’t know how to take care, and leave garbage everywhere,” she said.
“It’s been a real struggle for our people in so many ways.”
Timmothy Lezard, a PIB councillor, said that it’s crucial to adopt better water conservation practices for future generations.
“We need to make sure that the water we do have left is protected. Whether it’s ground water or water in the lake, this will make the future of this area here,” said Lezard.
“It’s very important for us to be mindful of water, use it wisely and don’t waste water.”
Following speeches and stories at cnxəlkip, the group took a short walk to the nearby banks of nluxʷluxʷɬcwix to see first-hand what is being done to restore the waterway to its natural state, which would better support fish habitats and the surrounding ecosystem.
Nearly six-kilometres upstream from the creek’s mouth is a perpetual landslide, which began 100 years ago during development on the “Prairie Valley” flats, according to ONA fisheries biologist and geomorphologist Kari Alex.
“When I look at this creek, it looks sick to me,” Alex said.
As a result of the slide, silt and dirt continues to make its way downstream, clouding the waterway. Efforts are underway to determine the source of the slide and how to mitigate it.
While it’s normal for creeks to move rocks, gravel and sediment, the amount of sediment moving through the creek’s low and narrow stream isn’t.
“We know that this isn’t quite normal for a lot of salmon. And salmon don’t do very well in poor water quality at all,” said Alex.
Over the last 100 years, the creek has been narrowed down from 20 metres wide to 10 metres wide. Dikes and riprap banks have been put in place to prevent flooding and protect nearby homes, ultimately reducing the creek’s floodplain.
Giant boulders and gravel travelling fast downstream have turned the creek’s bed into “one bit flat glide” that limits its ability to retain small gravel sizes that fish need to spawn. Between 2017 and 2020, the bed degraded by 40 centimetres, and Alex said that the bed will continue to go down.
“These gravels are not here for them to be able to spawn and to live out their life cycle. The pools and riffles are not available,” she said.
And with a reduced ability to spill out into floodplains, sediment sources stay in the waterway and are unable to reach cottonwood forests and riparian ecosystems that rely on them to grow and survive.
“We’re out of whack. We’re completely out of whack with the energy and what is normal for this stream,” she said.
The challenge now is determining how to repair and restore the creek’s width back to 20 metres, where it can flood all over again and connect to riparian vegetation.
Riffle-pools to help retain smaller spawning gravels are also being developed, which would help to reduce the creek’s deepening slope.
“It took us about 100 years to screw up this place, and it’s going to take us some time to fix it,” said Alex.
“But we can change the art of how our children see these rivers, and how their children see these rivers.”
With restoration efforts underway to restore the creek to its natural layout, so too are efforts to restore the stream to its salmon-bearing state.
While the creek still sees some kokanee populations, Herb Alex with the ONA’s kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ Hatchery said that it hasn’t had sockeye salmon in more than 100 years.
“We used to have really large runs coming up here in the millions,” said Herb, who’s a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band.
“With the dams on the Columbia, with the dams on the Okanagan — and specifically at Macintyre Block in Oliver — the fish were cut off from Okanagan Lake and Skaha Lake.”
One of ONA’s many initiatives on bringing the salmon back home to the Okanagan Basin was the launch of the kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ sockeye Hatchery in 2014. Herb noted that the hatchery is an environmental one, meaning that the fish are not raised to be eaten or sold. Rather, they are raised until they reach three or four grams and are released into the waterway system.
“They are a food source for the Okanagan people, but they are also a food source for the whole ecological web,” he said.
“Salmon are the baseline for any ecosystem, and they’ve been missing from this system for years.”
The process involves a broodstock selection, where the fish’s eggs are taken, fertilized and raised in the hatchery.
“The Okanagan Nation would like to just open up the dams and have the fish come back and repopulate on their own. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.”
His work in reintroducing salmon to creeks such as nluxʷluxʷɬcwix also involves a marine nutrient reintroduction program. A marine nutrient, he explained, is a sockeye that has gone to the ocean and then come back — something that has been missing from the creek for the past 100 years.
“From a First Nations’ perspective, the marine nutrients are the ocean’s gift to us,” he said. “They came all the way up, they die and they’re in the water.”
When the broodstock selection is completed and the eggs are collected, the fish is killed and its carcass is strategically placed in different creeks. As the carcass decays, he said that it leaves a signature for other fish in the creek to follow.
“The fish for the next year can detect that fish have moved up, died and are rotting,” he said. “So we believe that they believe that the fish have spawned successfully in that creek, and they will move into that area.”
As the carcasses eventually float downstream — which they’re supposed to do — Herb said that it’s normal for the hatchery to receive calls from community members about unknown fish in the creek.
“We’re trying to figure out a better way to inform the public,” he said.
“It’s a learning curve, too – we haven’t had fish here for a long time.”