Mission Creek’s original pioneer name was L’Anse-au-Sable, a French term meaning Sandy Cove. In 1860, the name was changed to Mission Creek in honour of the Catholic Oblate Mission established by Father Pandosy and other settlers. In recognition of its historical importance, Mission Creek was designated a BC Heritage River by the province in 1996.
Historically, Okanagan First Nations’ people were hunters and gatherers who travelled seasonally within a vast territory, including the areas in and around Mission Creek. These first inhabitants harvested kokanee and wildlife from the lower reaches of Mission Creek and the adjacent riparian zone. They also made use of various plants found along the creek for food, building materials, and medicines. As a result, many archeological sites remain along the creek today.
With the establishment of the Father Pandosy Mission in 1860, however, the dominant use on this part of the creek changed from fishing to agriculture. Until about 1900, the use of Mission Creek water was restricted almost exclusively to the extraction of small volumes carried relatively short distances to irrigate small local gardens, and to flood-irrigate hay flats and grain fields. In this sense, the creek itself acted as the reservoir that was later tapped for development purposes.
DEVELOPMENT IMPACTS IN THE UPPER REACHES
Mission Creek can generally be divided into two distinct development areas. Over the last century, human activity in its upper reaches has been dominated by logging and irrigation development.
The impact of pioneer logging was largely limited to cutting wood that supplied small and local markets. In the decades after World War II, however, improved technology and more broad-based markets brought more intensive and extensive exploitation. As Kelowna’s population grew then, and continues to grow today, so does the impact of upland logging on water quality.
Irrigation development involved building dams at the outlets of many upland lakes to provide regular and reliable supplies of water for agricultural and, more recently, domestic water supply. Starting shortly after 1900, extensive, elaborate, and expensive irrigation dams, canals, siphons and flume systems were built to deliver gravity-fed water from upland dams to a burgeoning tree fruit industry. As result, the status of many upland lakes was changed to ‘reservoir.’ This shift increased recreational uses of these lakes/reservoirs and the associated potential impacts on water quality.
DEVELOPMENT IMPACTS IN THE LOWER REACHES
While the upper reaches of Mission Creek certainly have been affected, it’s the lower reaches that have really taken the brunt of settlement and development impacts over the last 150 years. Between 1904 and 1914, more than 50,000 acres of grazing land, hay flats, and grain fields were brought under irrigated horticulture in the Okanagan Valley – a shift from ‘extensive’ to ‘intensive’ agriculture. As Kelowna’s population grew, water consumption in those bench lands was expanded to service other users. Irrigation, domestic, and commercial demands—along with stream channelization, diking, and gravel/sediment removal—have combined to degrade the creek’s biodiversity, and to severely limit its capacity to support ecosystems along the lower 12 kilometres and adjacent riparian zones.
Mission Creek flooded annually during early settlement, and the impacts on the area’s people, places, and economy were often extensive. And with Mission Creek’s significant role in supplying water to Okanagan Lake, spring flooding also brought rising lake levels. At times, Okanagan Lake flooded as far inland as Ellis Street.
FLOOD CONTROL & IMPACTS
Flood control was certainly improved over time by the damming and regularized release of winter snowmelt, but flooding remained a clear and present danger to lowland residents. In 1948, for example, Mission Creek floodwaters washed away the bridge over the creek just downstream from Gallagher’s Canyon.
By mid-century, there was growing interest in Mission Creek flood control. The preferred solution was to channelize and dike much of the creeks lower reaches. Sadly, few historical records of the post-World War II diking work remain, but its impact was dramatic.
Historically, the meandering Mission Creek held roughly 30 km of channel. With channelization and diking that distance was reduced to 11 km. In addition, the creek’s width was reduced from 80 metres in spots to an average of about 30 metres. With this came an equally dramatic rise in the speed of water in the creek channel, which brought with it almost complete loss of habitat for stream-spawning kokanee and trout.
To help mitigate the damage caused by channelization and diking, fish ladders were built in the 1950s and spawning channels were added in the 1980s. While these weren’t overly successful, they did increase public awareness and appreciation of the creek and its precarious state.
PUBLIC AWARENESS & APPRECIATION
In the early 1990s—building on renewed interest in Mission Creek and its social, cultural, environmental, and economic attributes—a local advocacy group called the Friends of Mission Creek kick-started development of the Mission Creek Greenway in partnership with the Regional District of Central Okanagan, City of Kelowna, Central Okanagan Land Trust, and Westbank First Nation.
Access to the creek made possible by the greenway brought even more focus on the need for restoration, as did the province’s commitment to restore the local kokanee population and, therefore, support the sport fishery. In response, a number of feasibility studies were commissioned in the mid-‘90s through the Ministry of Environment’s Okanagan Lake Action Plan.
Report recommendations included:
- Re-establishing the flood plain to reduce flooding and to improve fish and wildlife habitats and populations
- Creating a more natural and meandering creek route
- Establishing a wetland.
These objectives can be achieved over the long term by setting back portions of the dikes on both sides of the creek. This involves:
- Research to identify ideal setbacks (while recognizing existing constraints)
- Studies to determine the best design and habitat enhancement strategies and costs
- Fundraising to cover the costs of property acquisition, project design, implementation, and monitoring.
These priority actions formed the basis of the Mission Creek Restoration Initiative (MCRI).
MCRI STAGE 1 (2008-2013)
Stage 1 of the MCRI ran from 2008 to 2013 and included project start-up and coordination, and strategic and implementation planning. Project partners collaborated to achieve the following:
- Identify and prioritize key setback areas critical to project success
- Initiate an outreach program to landowners whose properties may be affected by the project
- Purchase land required for dike setbacks
- Launch a project website to support fundraising and other public outreach efforts
- Meet with key individuals including local MLAs and MP to build awareness
- Conduct a Mission Creek Channel Width Assessment and an Ecological Goods & Services Assessment
- Raise funds for a dike design study.
Between 2005 and 2013, project partners raised about $1.6 million for property acquisition, technical studies, communications, and public outreach. Two Swamp Road properties were purchased for a total of $790,000.
MCRI STAGE 2 (2014 onward)
During Stage 1, MCRI partners identified the portion of Mission Creek that would be restored first. This Phase 1 area is between Casorso and Gordon Roads on the south side of the creek.
The resulting Phase 1 pilot project will begin with a baseline biophysical inventory (BBI) conducted in the spring of 2014 to identify the presence/absence of fish, birds, reptiles, wildlife, and vegetation. Deliverables will include an ecological resources management plan, a detailed inventory database, and inventory mapping for ecologically sensitive areas and species at risk.
The inventory and management plan will help identify optimal dike setback locations and guide avoidance/mitigation options for habitats/species and restoration work along Mission Creek. In addition, photo plots will be established to provide monitoring and subsequent inventory opportunities before, during, and after construction of the setback dike.
Overall MCRI project success will be measured by the changes in biodiversity and ecological resources along Mission Creek over time.
Stay tuned for more information as the project unfolds!