By James Casey, Fraser Estuary Specialist, BC Program, Birds Canada
A sewage treatment plant might seem an odd place to take someone looking to connect to nature, but birders know there are few better. For those craving an authentic local experience, a sewage lagoon will provide more of a connection to place than a mall or theme park ever will. On the surface, the bird diversity present at a sewage lagoon is a reflection of the ecosystems around it. If you dare to dig a little deeper, how a particular community treats its waste is a reflection of the relationship it has with nature.
The Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, located at the mouth of the Fraser River in southern BC, is an interesting example. Iona Island is one of the best birding locations in BC. Located in the midst of the Fraser Estuary Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA), it has the second largest number of bird species recorded of any location in Western Canada. The island contains habitat ranging from floodplain forest to intertidal mudflats. At the centre of the island are the sewage lagoons, surrounded by a low fence keeping dogs and other sources of disturbance away. Iona’s proximity to the Greater Vancouver region and its semi-natural environment make it a popular site, receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
Photo: Kris Cu
Iona Island is an important place for urbanites around the Lower Mainland to connect to nature. However, the site also reflects our historical legacy with nature in that the sewage from the City of Vancouver is processed only to a “primary” level. Primary treatment is very rudimentary and while the solids are largely removed, the rest of the waste is pumped out into the estuary. With the current level of treatment, every time someone in Vancouver flushes a toilet or takes a shower, we’re part of a “toxic relationship” with the Fraser Estuary and the Salish Sea – using them as a receptacle for our waste.
Great Blue Heron Photo: Caroline Biel
Photo: Kris Cu
Thankfully plans are in the works to upgrade the Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant to treat water at a more rigorous, “tertiary” level (you can learn more about the projects here). This will come at a cost to our collective pockets, but in an era where we are being challenged to reimagine our relationship with nature to reverse ecological collapse, Iona Island is an opportunity to restore and reconnect with the bird life of the Fraser Estuary IBA. Have you had the chance to experience this important place for birds? Metro Vancouver is taking input on the Iona Island upgrade at IonaWWTP@metrovancouver.org. As birders and bird lovers, please consider emailing them to share how important this site has been to you in the past and your hopes for the future.