How to buy a moving island

The shape of Carey Island is continually changing as the Fraser River deposits sediments and erodes its banks. 📷 Google Earth/Tyler Olsen

This story first appeared in the July 9, 2024, edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

On Monday, the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced it had bought a large island sitting on the south side of the Fraser River, immediately north of Chilliwack.

Although $8 million will be spent on buying the property and preserving it for the future, the real value lies in the river channels and gravel bars that surround the undiked island. Those channels and gravel stretches are key habitat for salmon and other species; their value depends on the ability to shift and react to natural processes within the river.

But buying an island specifically because it is unprotected from river erosion processes raises the prospect that, eventually, a large portion of that property will one day disappear.

Carey Island is located north of Chilliwack and Rosedale. 🗺 Nature Conservancy of Canada

The moving island

The Carey Island purchased this year is not the Carey Island of tomorrow—or even today.

The Nature Conservancy has actually bought three former islands that, in recent decades, have become one single island.

A map of the property’s boundaries show that the specific “lands” include what is now a significant stretch of the Fraser Valley’s main channel. The property is also split into three chunks that used to be bisected by river channels that have since been filled by sediment and naturally reforested.

The boundaries of the property bought by the Nature Conservancy of Canada illustrate how it was once three separate islands. 🗺 Nature Conservancy of Canada

The property map underscores how, without dikes to pen it in, a river and the land that surrounds it is in constant flux. (Last year, we explored the Fraser’s shifting nature, using aerial imagery.)

Below, you can see how Carey Island itself has changed over the last 20 years. The Fraser Valley’s main channel has moved decidedly to the south over the last two decades and could encroach on the island’s northern banks. At the same time, other parts of the island are growing. So we wanted to ask the Nature Conservancy’s local program director Steve Godfrey how it works to buy an island that is constantly changing.

FVC: First of all, can you tell me how much money has been set aside to purchase this property? And then why it was deemed that this is a particularly valuable place that needs protecting?

Godfrey: I don't have the exact budget in front of me right now, but I can say we were lucky enough that the federal government put in $4 million to the project, and that was like a bit under half of the total project cost. The total project costs includes the land value, but it also includes closing costs, legal fees, and then a contribution to our stewardship Endowment Fund, which is what funds kind of the long-term management and maintenance and restoration and that kind of stuff.

As far as why it was a priority, it's really that so much of the lower Fraser River and of the gravel reach between Hope and Mission has been converted for agricultural use and for human use. Especially along the river, lots of the private lands there, it's estimated that up to 90% of them have been converted, and the shorelands have been armored or diked, or are protected in some way that restricts the natural sediment flow. So Carey Island is one of just a few remaining privately held fee simple lands that the shorelines and the channels haven't been armored or completely converted for human use. So that's why it's a really important piece for the sake of salmon and sturgeon and other aquatic species.

FVC: Why is that particularly important for those species?

Godfrey: The gravel reach of the lower Fraser is where the cobbles and rocks and gravels, the smaller sediments start to settle out. So that creates some really important habitat complexity, especially in the case of Carey Island, for rearing salmon—so juvenile or baby fish. And every spring, the spring freshet comes with the snowmelt, comes through and brings fresh water to all the different channels, like an intricate network of different aquatic habitats. Water filters through and some of it stays wet year round, some of it dries up and creates some complexity. That's really critical for a whole bunch of different species. And when you do things like dike and armor, it just changes the whole way the system works and the way the sediment moves around, and that can significantly impact fish values.

FVC: I want to get into that, because last year, I looked at satellite images over time, in the Fraser River area, and it really strikes me how just how quickly these areas can change when you are talking about islands and places that aren't protected.

Obviously, one reason we have protections is because people want to protect their land from being eaten away by the river, but as you say that itself has repercussions for the way rivers naturally operate, and the species that have grown to live in those rivers. How does owning an island or buying an island where the specific area and land can shift so quickly over time—how does that work? How do you define that island?

Godfrey: That's a really good question. So erosion and accumulation and deposition and accretion and all those natural processes, that's a part of something that any landowners of waterfront property deal with, and you can end up gaining land in one area and losing some in another due to erosion. For us, the purpose of conservation and why we thought that this was a really important project to secure was to prevent diking and actually allow those processes to happen naturally. So even where the original survey map doesn't exactly line up with where the land is today or where it is, in the future. allowing those processes to happen—in some areas will accrete and some will erode, and that'll change over time. But what's important for us is just that there isn't an interruption to that process and those natural ways of moving around.

FVC: Is it kind of like, the island itself can move, and you've bought an island that is land, but that land can actually move over time?

Godfrey: “It’s 248 hectares, so realistically, not a ton of it will be moving around, it could shift a bit. I shouldn't get too into the weeds here, but if an area that creates, you could apply to add that to the island. But the purpose for us is just to make sure those processes can still happen. And so if the land shifts a little bit, that's okay.

FVC: I’m interested in the weeds [laughs]. So that new land might accrete and be created over time as gravel is deposited in one place, that goes to the province naturally?

Godfrey: “It would be and different people who live along the river could in theory make an application for the province to add that to their parcel. And in any shoreline property, there’s winners and losers when it comes to sediment moving around. For us, regardless of where the parcel says that we are currently holding title, it's really just about protecting it from conversion, or a more intense use that would would prevent that from happening. So we think it's a good thing that that sediment is moving around,.

FVC: Yeah, you’re buying this land, but you’re more buying the ability to give permission to the river to do the natural processes.

This interview has been very lightly edited for clarity and concision.

This story first appeared in the July 9, 2024, edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

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