The last time there were salmon in Agassiz Slough, Mahatma Gandhi was still alive, Columbia Records had just introduced the first long playing record, and the calendar read 1948.

Salmon in the slough had been consigned to history, because a dike system had virtually closed the troubled waterway – until this spring. The Agassiz community celebrated in April that coho salmon had overwintered in the waterway for the first time in over 70 years. 

A new, fish-friendly floodgate on the slough has been credited with a salmon’s return, and is a sure sign that the slough can be restored to healthy habitat for this foundational species. By extension, so can other sloughs, streams and other waterways that have been impacted by dike systems with old pump stations, floodgates, and tidegates – infrastructure that was designed to control the flows of water in the Fraser River floodplain.

Before and after: the original, top-mounted floodgate and the new floodbox with a fish-friendly sluice gate.

That’s the premise of Watershed Watch’s Connected Waters campaign, which urges senior government to commit to upgrading all flood defences and ensure they are salmon-friendly.

The ambitious goal of Connected Waters is to reconnect 1,500 km of salmon habitat that is currently blocked by outdated flood infrastructure, mostly built generations ago, in the Fraser River floodplain. Fish in the most prolific salmon river in the world find themselves cut off from critical habitat that was formerly used as refuge and even spawning areas.

Connected Waters was launched in 2016, and there have been great strides so far. The case has been made to politicians at all levels. Members of the public have been engaged, and have even worked on restoration projects. Government funding has been secured to do the work.

The Resilient Waters Project was launched after Watershed Watch received support from the BC Salmon Restoration and Innovation Fund, with partners at MakeWay Canada, to determine the scope of work. The study assessed more than 150 flood control structures, and then in consultation with First Nations partners and other experts, the most important upgrades will be identified.

So far, 25 sites have made the cut. Three structures between Delta and Chilliwack are scheduled to receive upgrades, and of course the Agassiz Slough flood gate has already been replaced – with almost immediate results.

More new infrastructure should mean more salmon appearing where they haven’t been seen for decades.

Upgrading flood protection has the dual purpose of ensuring the safety of people who live and farm in the floodplain. As the flooding events of 2021 in B.C. dramatically demonstrated, there is a lot of work to be done to adapt to extreme weather events and global warming.

One of several juvenile salmon trapped upstream of the new floodgate by the Resilient Waters team.

“It’s not only about improving habitat for salmon, it’s about protecting our communities, it’s about preparing for climate change, it’s about food security,” said Lina Azeez of Watershed Watch, the Connected Waters campaign manager. “We want to be able to protect our farmlands, but we also want to be able to ensure there is good habitat for salmon, so we can continue to have salmon in perpetuity.”

Students from a local school helped plant native trees and shrubs along the slough this year.

Watershed Watch is a member of the Lower Fraser Floodplains Coalition which has been lobbying government for changes to flood management systems. On June 9, the Coalition held a Lower Fraser Floodplains Forum, to advance conversation and address barriers to a coordinated, regional approach to flood resilience.

On June 20, their work bore fruit, with the province’s announcement of the new $20 million Fraser Valley Flood Mitigation Program, and one of its stated goals is to improve riparian habitat. Azeez and others in the coalition are encouraged that government is listening, and that changes are starting to happen.

Consider how many advancements have been made in music recording devices for consumers since the long-playing record was first introduced in 1948. Yet at the same time, despite advancements to flood infrastructure solutions that have made it more fish-friendly, we have not invested in these upgrades, instead clinging to outdated designs. 

We’ve got a long way to go before we reconnect all 1,500 km of waterways in the lower Fraser, but projects like the new fish-friendly floodbox on the lower Agassiz Slough are proof of concept that we can have flood-resilient communities and also support wild salmon.