Somenos saga: how a threatened mini-wilderness survived and thrived

The Somenos Marsh has weathered threats from developers, invasive species and even drug runners

Paul Fletcher

Marsh Wildlife Society raised funds to build Drinkwater Dock for wildlife viewing and small craft launching | Photo: Paul Fletcher

It was half a lifetime ago in 1986 that I first set foot in Somenos Marsh, near Duncan, BC, in the heart of the Cowichan Valley.

I had just decamped from Fort McMurray as an oil price refugee and, missing the nature and landscapes of Alberta, I was looking for similar green spaces to explore and photograph. I was surprised to find, a stones’ throw from my new hometown, a miniature wilderness complete with its own small nature centre.

Manning the counter of the nature centre were a couple of old-timer naturalists happy to share their knowledge with anyone who had time to listen. I quickly learned that Somenos was a great place for bird watching and other nature activities but was under pressure to be developed because of its prime location.

I also learned that the name Somenos was derived from S’amuna’, the name of the Cowichan village that once stood, a few thousand years ago, close to Somenos Lake and Creek. According to oral history, one family were stewards of the area. The creek and lake provided them fish while the upland forests provided game, building materials and plants for food and medicine.

With colonization, digging ditches and building dikes became the norm to control seasonal water flows. It was not long before the early newspapers were regularly reporting the Somenos “flooding problem,” which remains to this day. The annual flooding had one fringe benefit – the marsh become a stop-over for migrating waterfowl.

Throughout its post-colonization period, business interests eyed Somenos. In the early part of the last century, a sawmill with railway service occupied a significant portion of marsh. A recently-defunct lumber company proposed a second mill in the 1970s but was rebuffed by public outcry. In later years the site became home to a boat sales business known as Boatland.

In 1989, to protect the marsh, John Croockewit and I founded the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society with the support of the Cowichan Valley Naturalists, who had been lobbying the local Municipality of North Cowichan to declare Somenos a bird sanctuary. Our goal was to create the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Refuge.

Plans for a nature centre and interpretive trails were dashed in the early nineties, when a rezoning application for a large housing development threatened to eliminate the Garry Oak ecosystem bordering the east side of Somenos Creek. We challenged the rezoning and managed to defeat the initial proposal. The developer then returned with a smaller proposal that, despite public objection, was quickly approved.

Things shifted dramatically in 1992 when earth-moving equipment unearthed an ancient Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) Nation ancestral burial site, putting development activities on hold. Archaeological digs at the site revealed human remains and artifacts, and in 1994 Quw’utsun’ elders put a stop to any further development around what would eventually became a protected area known as Ye’yumnuts.

An elevated boardwallk allows access during winter when the marsh is flooded. The section in the photo is named after our very good birder friend Derrick Marven. | Photo: Paul Fletcher

 

The 1990s were a decade of growth for the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society as we started to achieve success with our restoration and awareness efforts. Many projects were completed including habitat inventories of Bings, Averil and Richards creeks, the three main waterways feeding Somenos Lake; a full-length documentary video about Somenos; and enhancement work on Averil and Bings creeks.

The decade also brought new challenges. We faced hunting pressures under the guise of crop protection, illegal filling of the floodplain, the overnight appearance of a floating crayfish farm on Somenos Lake (that just as quickly left) and a float plane landing strip carved out of the marsh for drug running.

In 2000, the Society met with other groups involved in Somenos to form a unified conservation strategy. Our efforts were so successful that the Somenos Management Committee was created and, a year later, the first Somenos Marsh Management Plan was completed. We celebrated with our partners by unveiling new signs for the renamed Somenos Marsh Conservation Area.

At the same time, we were lobbying Bird Life Canada, part of a global alliance of non-governmental organizations advocating for conservation of birds and bird habitats, to designate Somenos Marsh as a globally significant Important Bird Area. Somenos provides overwintering habitat for trumpeter swans as well as feeding habitat for great blue herons. We were successful in our lobbying efforts and in 2000, Somenos became one of the first Important Bird Areas on Vancouver Island.

Flood protection dikes

In November 2009, Somenos waters overflowed into a neighbouring residential area. Due to the flood and the potential for future flooding, local governments developed a flood protection plan that saw the urban area ringed with dikes and pumps – a dated flood prevention solution that was losing favour in places where flooding was a regular occurrence. The dikes pushed far into the marsh, allowing land previously subject to flooding to be developed. Since then a proposal to locate a police station on the newly available lands has been defeated, but the neighbouring golf driving range, which was once farmland, did end up getting rezoned for a huge seniors’ assisted-living residence with plans for other buildings and a hotel.

By 2013 we were getting tired. The work that needed to be done in Somenos, particularly in invasive species management, was becoming an impossible task for volunteers. So we took a giant leap and hired our first part-time employee, Elizabeth Bailey, to head up our restoration program. After a few years we received enough funding to hire Elizabeth full-time.

Pacific Northwest Raptors bring their birds to the “Celebrate Somenos” family day open house | Photo: Paul Fletcher

A small patch of an invasive aquatic plant called parrots feather was discovered in Somenos Creek in 2015. The plant is sold for use in aquariums and garden ponds. Within a few years it has become a significant environmental threat to both water quality and fish passage for migrating salmon. The Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society, with funding support from the Municipality of North Cowichan, is now leading the effort to control the plant by shading – restricting sunlight to the invasive plant using heavy fabrics and planting shade trees.

A review of the original Somenos Marsh Management Plan was completed in 2018, and the provincial government designated all crown land in the conservation area as the S’amuna’/Somenos Wildlife Management Area. Notably, Somenos is the first Wildlife Management Area in BC history with a First Nation partner in the management agreement. We followed suit by asking for and receiving permission from Cowichan Tribes to rename the larger Conservation Area the S’amuna’/Somenos Conservation Area.

Within five years of hiring our first employee, we are a thriving organization with a full-time program manager, part-time biologist and two student interns working with us during their summer breaks. We have received funding in excess of $500,000 for restorative projects in and around the Conservation Area. This includes a project in partnership with the Municipality of North Cowichan to treat storm water before it enters the sensitive Somenos system. Another project, a partnership with the Cowichan Land Trust, is a series of landowner contacts with residents living around Somenos and Quamichan lakes, to help rehabilitate their shoreline interface.

Friends of the marsh protesting about the Municipality’s plan to push a dike through the main viewing area entrance | Photo: Paul Fletcher

We have a new full-time employee, Elodie Roger, who has taken up the position that Elizabeth Bailey left. We are moving forward to create protected greenways in the Somenos basin to allow wildlife, fish and plants to thrive in a zone that is protected for all time.

In October we celebrate the 10th anniversary of our annual WildWings Nature and Arts Festival. This year, with additional funding from the Government of Canada, Heritage Branch, we are fortunate enough to share the stage with our newest partner, Cowichan Tribes. The theme is Reconnecting with Nature, and we will be hosting over two dozen events from October 6-29.


Paul Fletcher is a co-founder of the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society. He has worked for over 30 years as a professional photographer and photography instructor.


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