British Columbia·Video

'Widespread' amounts of cocaine, painkillers found in fish habitat on Sumas Prairie after 2021 floods: study

Fish habitat in the lower Fraser Valley was found to have an "astounding" amount of contaminants after extreme flooding last fall, according to a new study.

Excessive metals, pesticides, fecal bacteria also found in samples, Raincoast Conservation report says

Staff with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation took samples of water in the former Sumas Lake area in Abbotsford, B.C., over a seven-week period after the floods in November 2021. (Supplied by Alex Harris/Raincoast Conservation Foundation)

Fish habitat in the lower Fraser Valley was found to have an "astounding" amount of contaminants after extreme flooding last fall, according to a new study.

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation said excessive nutrients, metals, fecal bacteria, hydrocarbons and pesticides — as well as cocaine and painkillers — were detected in 29 surface water samples from the Sumas Prairie in Abbotsford, B.C., over a seven-week period after the flood.

"This is a red flag saying these waters are unsafe for salmon and unsafe for fish," said Peter Ross, a toxicologist and the report's lead author, speaking Thursday morning on The Early Edition.

In a statement released with the findings the same day, the foundation said the degradation in the health of Sumas fish habitat became clear during this research.

Raincoast said its analysis of water in fish habitat found "excessive nutrients, metals, hydrocarbons and pesticides" were the primary pollutants of concern.

It also said cocaine and painkillers were found in its samples, which were taken from 11 sites between December 2021 and February 2022. Ross puts these contaminants in a category he called pharmaceuticals and personal care products and said cocaine dominated it.

"We found cocaine to be the most widespread contaminant in this category," said Ross.  "The concentrations were not very high, but ... it was everywhere."

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation collected water samples from 11 sites in Sumas Prairie between Dec. 15, 2021 and Feb. 2, 2022. The area in blue shows the location of Sumas Lake before it was drained in the 1920s. (Supplied by the Raincoast Conservation Foundation)

The study was supported by a number of groups including the Sumas First Nation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and B.C.'s Ministry of Environment.

The foundation noted water quality in the Sumas Prairie — formerly Sumas Lake, before the area was drained in the 1920s — is "poor, regardless of flooding, having been degraded by agricultural and domestic activities."

A lack of historical data makes it difficult to know how much contamination was a direct result of the flood and how much was a pre-existing problem, it added.

Residents were warned to stay out of the icy, murky floodwater that swamped the area last November. Officials warned debris like oil, garbage, jerry cans and dead animals were polluting the water.

Soil quality 'not compromised': ministry

Much of B.C.'s food production happens in the Sumas Prairie, a low-lying part of the Fraser Valley about 90 kilometres east of Vancouver. The area is irresistible to some of the largest agriculture operations in the province for several reasons: the fields are flat, there's a temperate climate year-round and it's close to the big city.

The soil is strong, too.

The fact the prairie was formerly a shallow lake makes its soil — sandy at the former lake's edge and clay-like toward its centre — especially nutrient-rich and suitable for dozens of varieties of vegetables and berries, as well as livestock.

WATCH | The 100-year-old decision that contributed to Abbotsford flooding:

The 100-year-old decision that contributed to Abbotsford, B.C., flooding

1 year ago
Duration 2:30
More than 100 years ago, a lake outside what is now the Abbotsford, B.C., area was drained to create lucrative farmland. Many say that decision is a big contributor to the devastating flooding.

After the flood, the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture conducted a preliminary evaluation of soil quality to determine whether the area would still be viable for farming.

Roughly two dozen soil samples were analyzed for contaminants like gas, diesel, pesticides, herbicides and asbestos.

"After reviewing the soil quality results, it was determined the sampled agriculture lands were not compromised during the flooding and the integrity of the agricultural food supply production for this area remains strong," read a statement.

An image of Sumas Lake before it was drained to make way for farmland. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Ross said the report reveals a collective failure to protect water and fish habitat from contamination. He wants these findings to contribute to "innovation, stewardship and collective investment in green infrastructure" that will protect people, communities, and fish habitat.

"What we would hope is that Sumas First Nation and other organizations and agencies will look to this report and use those conclusions, use our findings to try to design a better way of living with water during a time of changing climate," he said.

Sumas First Nation Chief Dalton Silver described the findings of the report as "alarming," and raised concerns about the state of the nearby waterways that salmon return to. 

"There's a big worry about the health of the salmon, of wildlife in general," he said. 

"If the environment is ailing around you, you need to look after yourself a little bit better."

CBC News has contacted the Ministry of Agriculture to clarify the discrepancy between its soil findings and the water findings in the foundation's report.

In a statement, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said it is carefully reviewing the report's findings.

Suma First Nation chief Dalton Silver speaks with Gloria Macarenko about a recent study detailing contaminants found in the water in the Fraser Valley region after the floods last year.

With files from The Early Edition and On The Coast

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