River valley flooding destroys archaeological sites, uncovers others

A state of emergency remains in effect for the Williams Lake River Valley and WLIB Tillion Reserve #4 (WLIB photo)
Only fully treated effluent was being discharged as of May 7 (WLIB photo)
Sugar Cane Archaeology field supervisors Trista Johnson (left) and Brittany Cleminson at one of several test sites adjacent to the area where the road is being widened in the river valley due to impacts by flooding. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Flooding in the Williams Lake River Valley has washed away thousands of years of Indigenous history while unearthing others.

Since a pollution abatement order was issued to the City of Williams Lake by the Williams Lake Indian Band (WLIB) on April 30, WLIB manager of title and rights Whitney Spearing said DWB Consulting from Lac La Hache has been working with WLIB, the City, and Ministry of Environment to facilitate environmental testing including water and soil sampling.

Spearing added Sugarcane Archaeology was issued an emergency permit from the Archaeology Branch of British Columbia on May 1.

“So we have a permit now in place to help actively facilitate those emergency works,” she said. “What that means is we are on the ground and we are assessing not only the environmental damage and stream damage of natural portions but obviously disturbances have been created as a result of trying to get access into the lagoons and get power restored and get that cap in place for the effluent so we are in the valley assessing those areas as well as some of the road widening that has happened to get rock trucks in and out of that area.”

A state of emergency remains in effect for the WLIB’s nine-acre Tillion Reserve #4 located at the end of the Williams Lake River Valley. Spearing said they were able to access it by helicopter on May 7 and had field technician Brittany Cleminson spend most of the afternoon working with DWB.

“There were two previously recorded archaeological sites present on the reserve prior to us getting there. We were able to assess that one of those sites is heavily damaged and a good piece of it has been pushed into the river valley,” Spearing said. “That particular site is also obviously contaminated with the sewage effluent that’s there so we’re not able to do any testing until we know the toxicity and bio-contamination so we’re not putting crews in danger.”

The other site is intact.

From the survey on May 7, there were two more new archaeological sites that were identified and recorded.

On the off-reserve portion of the river valley, four previously recorded sites were reexamined for any damage, and four new archaeological sites were also recorded.

“Thankfully the majority of the sites are intact and they haven’t been damaged by any of the flooding or the disturbance from rebuilding the works that have had to occur so far so we’re thankful on that account,” Spearing said.

Two sites previously recorded on Tillion Reserve #4 consisted of a subsist feature for fishing as well as lithics which are stone tools.

Spearing said they now know there are also cache pits which were likely used for either food or tools.

“The whole Fraser River Valley if you take a look at all of the terraces that run up and down they are home to large villages of pit-houses, cache pits, and really just large gathering and habitation areas so it’s unsurprising that we have these features that are right down at Tillion,” she said, noting there are hundreds of house pits and areas of archaelgoical features in other nearby areas such as the Williams Lake Community Forest.

“There are just thousands and thousands of years of history in the Fraser River Valley.”

Read More: River valley crews to install temporary bridge to access grit removal building

At the left bank of the Fraser River, at the mouth of the Williams Lake River, Spearing said Tillion Reserve #4 was the scene of traditional fishing use including salmon, trout, and sturgeon for thousands of years.

“That piece of land was issued as an Indian Reserve to support subsistence,” she said. “There are no infrastructure plans per say but definitely plans to have cultural gatherings and other things on the reserve.”

City of Williams Lake chief administrative officer Milo Macdonald said they are working towards a permanent long-term solution. A helicopter assessment to provide better understanding what would possibly be required was scheduled for May 11.

Since May 7, only fully treated effluent is being discharged into Williams Lake River.

“What we need to do is get ourselves back to the original design of the system which is to discharge at the mouth of the Fraser River so we’re working hard to get all the way there but now at least the effluent that is being discharged is fully treated,” Macdonald said.

A lot of progress has been made, he noted.

“The main important thing I think that everybody felt was that we wanted to make sure we were discharging treated effluent and that the treated effluent wasn’t going to cause damage to the environment, so to achieve that is very good and now we’re in a position to get to a long-term solution.”

The engineering design will play a big part in that.

“I think it’s really important to make sure that whatever infrastructure we put back in there, because it’s going to come at a considerable cost, we have to make sure it is going to be resilient against these 200-year events. If these events become more frequent than 200 years we just want to make sure that we don’t put something in that will be compromised in a subsequent event,” he said. “So there’s a lot of work to do to make sure things are above flood plains and that they’re archaeologically and environmentally sound and meet the approval of all the stakeholders and a lot of it involves consultation with professionals.”

Read More: City, Williams Lake Indian Band at odds over projects, pollution abatement order

Spearing said the province has really stepped up to help them.

“They were able to really just drill down into getting this archaeological permit issued and they’ve been helping to facilitate the required flights for the sampling.”

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