Skip to main content

It's not every day you get a chance to create a new lake in an urban landscape, but Tony Toth sees that opportunity arising in the controversy surrounding a swan die-off in the Fraser Valley.

He looks at Judson Lake, a shallow body of water, choked by invasive species. It nearly dries up each summer and in the winter turns into a "death trap" for trumpeter swans because of lead shot scattered on the bottom. What he sees is not just an environmental mess, but the potential for a thriving green space, a patch of wildness on Vancouver's doorstep.

This troubled body of water, he says, could be a place where urban youngsters go to learn the art of angling.

It could be a place where bird watchers go in the spring to see nesting waterfowl and in the winter to witness the miraculous arrival of the trumpeter swans. Spectacular birds with graceful, long necks and enormous wing spans, they swoop down on the Fraser Valley each December to feed in farm fields before flocking to Judson Lake to roost.

Over the decades, the once vibrant lake has suffered from a number of abuses. It has become invaded by exotic plants, and native trout were driven out by introduced perch, bass and other species.

Even the foreign interlopers have had a tough time surviving some summers when water levels dropped dramatically.

Despite these problems, Mr. Toth, executive director of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, sees enormous opportunity.

"What a perfect place to demonstrate a full-bore reclamation project," he said. "We could turn this lake into something wonderful.

"Look at the crowds in Stanley Park. People are going there because it's a beautiful, natural setting in a crowded urban setting. Look at the Reifel Sanctuary [the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta, on Westham Island] School groups flock there to see the waterfowl. Judson Lake could be the same kind of attraction."

Judson Lake straddles the Canada-U.S. border near Abbotsford. Its central location in the Fraser Valley, just south of the Trans-Canada Highway, makes it easily accessible. But before crowds of birdwatchers and families of anglers start coming there, a lot of work has to be done.

Mr. Toth said the first problem to overcome is the squabbling that has gone on for years over the trumpeter swan issue. Starting in 1999, swans began to die in significant numbers in the Fraser Valley, which prompted several research projects by the Canadian Wildlife Service. Lead hunting shot, now widely banned, was soon identified as the prime suspect in the deaths. The birds pick up lead pellets when they browse and die from lead poisoning. But pinpointing exactly where the birds get that shot has been difficult and investigators continue to look for answers. That has prompted a lot of bickering over who is to blame for the lead-shot problem, as well as for the lack of action on a remedy. Judson Lake has emerged as a focal point for the problem because that's where most of the dead swans have been found.

For several years, Kevin Sinclair, who owns 44 hectares of raspberry fields on the lake, has been campaigning for a government program to remove the lead from Judson Lake.

But Mr. Toth said the problem is far more complex than that. If Judson Lake is to be restored, he said, a spectrum of issues must be addressed.

What is causing the water table to fluctuate so dramatically? Judson Lake didn't always dry up in the summer. How badly polluted is the muck on the lake bottom and what's the best way to deal with that problem? What can be done about the invasive, exotic plant and animal species?

"We've got to get the focus off icons here. It's not just about the swans," Mr. Toth said. "Instead of focusing on the emotional argument over swans, we have to look at this in the long term, and ask what is the best way to go about making this ecosystem whole again?"

Mr. Toth, whose organization has 30,000 members in 125 clubs in the province, is calling for "an international reclamation project" that was see the governments of Canada, the United States, B.C. and Washington State work together to clean up Judson Lake.

The B.C. Wildlife Federation, a group that is made up largely of hunters and anglers, is offering to help.

"For starters we need to line up some philanthropic organizations on both sides of the border to help fund this," Mr. Toth said.

Ducks Unlimited, a conservation organization that was founded by hunters, is one of the groups he plans to approach. Indeed, the organization's Canadian branch has already expressed interest. Given that the lead-shot poisoning of swans is the issue that brought the plight of Judson Lake to the forefront, many think it would be fitting to see hunting organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and the B.C. Wildlife Federation team up to restore the lake.

With support from government, Judson Lake could be turned into a healthy ecosystem once again. If it is, not only will the swans be saved, but so will a lot of other things -- and the Fraser Valley might one day have, in the midst of a rapidly growing area, a green space to rival the George C. Reifel Bird Sanctuary.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe