Concerns for fish living in Thornhill’s Hurley Creek have prompted action, but questions remain about what is polluting the urban stream.
The issue was brought to the community’s attention when Northwest Community College biology instructor, Dr. Norma Kerby, had her class study the creek. Kerby, who has now retired, was shocked to discover that despite heavy levels of pollution, there are still fish living and spawning in the creek.
“I just about fell over when I found out there were fish [in Hurley Creek],” Kerby said, adding when she learned there were coho salmon fry in the creek, the water course became all the more valuable.
During the study, students looked at what was posing a threat to fish in the urban creek, which runs behind the Mac’s store in lower Thornhill.
They identified general problems such as garbage along with specific issues such as rotting wooden culverts which block water flow and silt build up on spawning beds.
Kerby said they also found the creek to have abnormally high levels of nitrates, along with more obvious hazards, such as rusting car parts sitting in the water.
She explained that Hurley Creek is a ground water-fed creek, and at a low point in Thornhill, ending up as the draining ditch for all water seeping down from the Thornhill bench.
“The stream is highly polluted in certain sections and those sections tend to be associated where there is a high density of housing and septic systems,” Kerby said, cautioning that official testing has yet to be done.
“This area used to have thousands of little streams, and they used to produce salmon or trout, and we have destroyed them.”
Thornhill regional district director Ted Ramsey, says it’s time something was done about pollution in Hurley Creek.
“There is just simply no way that should be happening, we shouldn’t be poisoning our own water,” Ramsey said, pointing out that the creek eventually empties into the Skeena River.
Ramsey doesn’t know the exact cause of pollution, but suspects it is likely a result of leaking septic tanks, and the volume of grey water the community puts into the ground.
“We have to be very careful the amount of load we put into the ground when it comes to sewer,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey explains that Thornhill is a septic tank community, where to deal with waste, solids are pumped out of individual septic tanks and liquids, or “grey water,” are pumped into fields where water is purified by the earth as it sinks, becoming clean by the time it reaches the water table.
He noted during times of high water, there are situations in some locations where sewage tanks literally sit directly in water connected to the creek.
“We really need to get some sewers happening out there; the water quality won’t clean up until that happens,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey says the community of Thornhill has been petitioning for assistance through government grants to install a sewage system for 15 years now.
Calling it a Catch-22 situation, Ramsey said Thornhill’s last grant application was turned down because it wasn’t considered green enough, even though installing a sewer system in Thornhill would improve the environment in the community.
He estimates the cost of moving Thornhill from a septic tank community to one with sewers would come in at around $18 million.
And while the Kitimat-Stikine regional district says it does have plans to test the water in the creek, it is unsure of when the budget will allow that to happen.
“There will be some plans to do some testing later on, but not right now,” says Ted Pellegrino, planner at the regional district.
When the Terrace Rod and Gun Club heard what Kerby’s class had discovered, it approached the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans for help.
The department came up with a clean up plan calling for the assistance of the regional district and volunteers from the rod and gun club. The regional district’s participation came in the form of donating vehicles and waiving disposal fees at its landfill.
Pellegrino says the regional district will take any opportunity it can to improve water quality on a fish-bearing stream because of the importance to the community.
“There is fish value in that creek, and we are doing the cleanup with the rod and gun club,” Pellegrino explained.
Work started on the Hurley Creek restoration project on Aug. 4.
Members from the Terrace Rod and Gun Club, Brand Excavation and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were out with rakes and garbage bags, cleaning up trash in the creek.
Using a small excavator from Brand Excavation, the volunteer crew removed the rotten wood culverts and stabilized the banks where needed, said Terrace Rod and Gun Club’s president Art Moi.
“It’s going to allow the water to flow,” Moi explained of the work that was accomplished.
One section of a bank that had been eroded away, allowing silt to settle on spawning beds, was strengthened with rocks.
To protect the fish, nets were set up in advance on either side of the works, stopping fish from entering the site.
Fish traps were placed in between the nets, and 21 trout and three bullhead catfish were caught and relocated so as not to be disturbed.
“We are trying to enhance habitat, we don’t want to hurt the fish,” Moi said.
The Skeena Valley Rotary Club will be helping out Sept. 25 by sending out members to clean up more garbage from the creek.
“We would like to see the site restored,” Moi said, adding people in the area are talking about how the project could turn Hurley Creek into Thornhill’s version of Terrace’s Howe Creek.
The Howe Creek trail system is now a popular walking, running and general recreation area in Terrace.
It has been under development for years and has relied on the City of Terrace being able to use volunteer organizations such as the Greater Terrace Beautification Society.
“There is potential for this to be another managed green space.” Moi said of the potential of Hurley Creek.
Hurley Creek begins northeast of Old Lakelese Lake Road via some ground water springs. It discharges into Kofoed Creek. which discharges into the Skeena River.