K’omoks estuary in bloom

From an email by Jocie Brooks to members of the Botany Group on May 26.

This week, I’d like to draw attention to our amazing estuary, which is full of fascinating plants, many of which are now in bloom. 

Estuary view with sedge-protection fencing (Photo: Gordon Olsen)

Experience the K’ómoks Estuary

We live right beside it, but we often forget about it in our pursuit of other places and interests. It becomes just a passing glance, a “pretty view” while driving the Dyke Road from Courtenay to Comox. To really experience it, one has to step out of the car. Last week I pulled over at the Rotary viewing stand, a place I haven’t stopped at for years. In minutes, you find yourself waist deep in sedges, smelling sweetgrass, listening to the piercing song of a warbler, and peering into a hot pink shooting star or a brilliant yellow buttercup. The place is wild and interesting, beautiful, historic, with an abundance and diversity of birds, plants, fish, insects and animals that could keep an expert busy for a lifetime. This special place, the K’ómoks estuary, deserves our full attention and appreciation. 

Why are estuaries important?

Estuaries, where rivers meet the sea, are among the most productive ecosystems on earth. In BC, only 3% of our shoreline is made up of estuaries, yet 80% of all wildlife either live in, or spend part of their lifecycle in estuaries. Rivers deposit rich, fertilized sediments, and tides carry oxygen and nutrients into the estuary and flush out its wastes. Estuaries encompass a variety of habitats. There are lush meadows of sedges, with swathes of pink, blue and red in the spring from the blooms of shooting star, camas and paintbrush. Salt marsh plants such as silverweed, seaside arrow-grass and maritime plantain thrive in a brackish mix of salt and fresh water. Exposed mudflats are colonized by small, tough plants like pickleweed and sea milk-wort, and at lower tide levels there are extensive “forests” of eelgrass. Huge amounts of carbon are stored in estuary sediments, making estuary conservation even more critical in the face of climate change.

A brief history 

First Nations peoples lived on the shores of the K’ómoks estuary for millennia, and the remnants of their fish weirs for harvesting salmon can still be seen in patterns of wooden pegs that protrude from the mudflats. Since the coming of the pioneers in the mid to late 19th century, the estuary has been profoundly altered and abused. Logging and coal mining had the biggest impact, with railway lines built right along the shoreline, and jetties built for dumping logs and transporting coal. The courses of our rivers were altered, and no longer fanned out into the estuary as they had done. A sewage lagoon was made (where the airpark is now) and old cars and refuse were dumped for fill (old Field Sawmill site). Much of the shoreline has been lost to housing developments. Sadly, we will never really know what the estuary was like in its pristine state, but despite all of the changes it is remarkable just how much diversity still exists. 

Protection and restoration

Many local organizations work to protect and preserve our estuary. K’ómoks First Nation patrols the estuary with their Guardian program, and are involved in restoration by planting native sedges and erecting fencing to keep Canada Geese from grazing.

Project Watershed is also at the forefront of efforts to protect, restore and educate the public about the estuary. Project Watershed, KFN, the City of Courtenay, and many other organizations are working to “unpave paradise” by re-wilding the old Field Sawmill site (Kus-Kus-Sum) by the 17th Street bridge. Native plants will be restored, and side channels created for salmon habitat. 

 Comox Valley Nature has a long history of removing invasive plants from the estuary and planting native vegetation. The Comox Valley Land Trust is involved in efforts to protect the estuary’s watershed. Many more groups care for the rivers and streams that feed into the estuary.

What you can do

Go out and experience what’s right here before us, our amazing estuary, and do what you can to support the many organizations that work tirelessly to protect it!

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