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A lasting legacy: The man who helped save the Tsolum River

The Tsolum River, which runs along Mount Washington into Courtenay, welcomed back its best run of salmon since 1958 this fall.

The Tsolum River, which runs along Mount Washington into Courtenay, welcomed back its best run of salmon since 1958 this fall.

More than 60,000 pink salmon returned, along with coho, steelhead and the tiny bugs and plants they feed on, to a river that was barren for nearly 40 years as toxic metals seeped in from a defunct copper mine.

“This is one of those real success stories,” said John Deniseger, 55, sitting on a bench near Fisherman’s Wharf in Victoria. “It was all about the partnership. There’s no way it would’ve happened otherwise.”

The newly retired biologist and former head of environmental quality on Vancouver Island for the provincial government spent two decades studying the river and working to bring it back to life in a restoration project that redefined how the government worked with others.

He was in Victoria to receive a Premier’s Award for his 31 years in the civil service with the Ministry of Environment, mainly for creating an unprecedented level of collaboration among the government, academia, the private sector, First Nations and community groups.

“John left a lasting legacy for our children and our grandchildren. He dedicated his working life to making sure the province is in better shape now than it was when he started. There is no bigger legacy than that,” said Premier Christy Clark at the awards dinner Oct. 17.

Deniseger was responsible for the water and air quality of the west coast region for the better part of his career. Based in Nanaimo, he pioneered an eco-region approach to watershed management that engaged local communities and saved money and helped establish a shared stewardship approach to several watershed and water bodies, including the Sooke Basin. He helped develop standards for water quality and monitoring in partnership with universities, contributed to research that prevented trophy fisheries in inactive lakes, worked to solve the mystery of large algae blooms and studied the effects of urbanization on water resources.

His recent work in the capital region helped set new standards for marine-outfall monitoring in B.C. and established a partnership to address air emissions from cruise ships in James Bay.

Deniseger said what he learned working on the Tsolum River restoration shaped every success that came after.

“It’s about building genuine relationships. When you do that you can bring so many resources to the table, whether it’s dollars or technical expertise or just passion and enthusiasm,” he said. “When you do that you build trust and that’s where things really happen.”

It was a rough start.

Deniseger’s work on the Tsolum River began in the 1980s. Researchers needed to figure out why the once-flourishing fish population was wiped out and why millions of fry released into the river by a hatchery did not return.

“The first part was understanding what was going on, the cause,” he said. “We did something different, placing fish in cages in different parts of the river.”

Subsequent water testing revealed extraordinary levels of metals, originating from an abandoned copper mine at the top of the mountain that only operated from 1964 to 1966.

The government kicked in $1.5 million to remediate the mine, which decreased the copper levels by 50 per cent but it was not nearly enough. Copper levels needed to be seven micrograms per litre for fish to survive. They started at 90.

“The fish were dead before, but they were still dead at the end of the day,” Deniseger said. A fair bit of money was sunk into the project and it became a problem no one wanted to touch.

“The community was definitely pushing to have a solution. We had this river that should have had a lot of salmon in it that had virtually nothing,” he said.

Jack Minard, executive director of the Tsolum River Restoration Society, got involved in 1998. The avid snorkeller enjoyed the fish and fauna of the Puntledge River and was shocked to discover the eerily clear, adjoining Tsolum — named B.C.’s most-threatened river in 1999.

“It was completely free of life,” Minard said. One thing led to another and he found himself on a citizen task force. “Then things fell apart when legal action with the mine put a stop to the task force. No one could speak out.”

It wasn’t until 2003, when a unique partnership was formed between the Ministry of Environment, Environment Canada, Department of Fisheries, Tsolum River Restoration Society, Pacific Salmon Foundation, and Timberwest, who owned rights to the area, that change started to happen.

Minard credits Deniseger for making the collaboration work.

“He said: ‘Let’s figure out what’s going on and let’s fix it,’ That was the epicentre of keeping the partnership alive,” Minard said. “Trust was built from there. What John brought was an incredible ability to empower each one to collaborate ... I get a lot of accolades, but he pulled this off with some non-traditional partnerships. Now it’s a template for the province.”

Deniseger said the immediate goal was momentum. This came about in a brainstorming session where a plan was hatched to re-route a creek coming off the mine through a wetland by digging an 800-metre channel. The copper levels dropped by half again. To document their success, they put fish in cages back in the river.

“This is where the partnership really kicked in,” Denisege said. “The way we would’ve done things in the past was to do it all ourselves.”

Instead, Deniseger’s team trained everyone in the partnership to monitor and care for the fish — community members working alongside logging staff, government and scientists. They shared shifts for three weeks.

“We went to do the last check. Not a fish died,” Deniseger recalled excitedly. It took one call and the word spread. “It was very cool. From there, it was ‘this can be done.’ ”

The group had the gusto they needed to take on a longer-term solution. In 2008, the government invested $4.5 million into capping the mine with a protective lining, glacial till and vegetation.

“It works kind of like a big raincoat,” Deniseger said. The mountain no longer looks like a mine and it sheds water from rainfall, instead of absorbing it into toxic ground and water sources.

Since the bulk of the project was completed in 2009, the salmon and steelhead stocks have increased each year. So much so, the hatchery built to retain some economic benefit of the river recently closed. They don’t need it. The microscopic bugs and algae have blossomed. Life has come back to the Tsolum, which takes its name from the Coast Salish phrase “peaceful running waters.”

The experience shaped Deniseger’s core beliefs about success in his work. First, there have to be genuine partnerships. Second, innovate and try to do things smarter. Finally, always be science-based.

“One of John’s key roles was being able to explain science to everyone,” said Randy Alexander, who worked with Deniseger for 10 years as the regional director for the Ministry of Environment’s environmental protection section for the west coast.

“It made my week when he came into the office and said: ‘We’ve got a great idea,’ because he could solve a complex problem often by bringing together the right people,” said Alexander, who now works for the Regional District of Nanaimo.

Deborah Epps began working with Deniseger as a co-op student in 1993 and considers him her greatest mentor.

“He really believes what he does makes a difference. It’s very inspiring,” said Epps. She followed Deniseger’s footsteps as the new ministry section head and continues to work on projects they started. One is the Cowichan Watershed Partnership Project, which brings together all levels of government and local First Nations in hopes of revitalizing a once-flourishing shellfish harvest, decimated by years of polution.

“I’ve got big boots to fill but we built a good framework for how we do good business and I plan to continue it,” Epps said.

Deniseger knows the value of mentorship. Born and raised by his Dutch immigrant family in Victoria, he had a healthy interest in the outdoors. Dissecting a fetal pig in biology class at Oak Bay High School piqued his scientific curiousity, he said.

His passion was honed at the University of Victoria under the tutelage of two professors who introduced him to liminology, the study of freshwater lakes and streams.

“Now I can’t drive over a bridge without looking down at the water,” Deniseger said. He checks out the flow, algae content and clarity. “Just to see if it looks right. Can’t help it.”

Since deciding to retire last year, Deniseger and his wife of 34 years, June, moved to Bowser, where they are building an eco-friendly house. The plan to enjoy the ocean, wildlife, trails and time in the garden before Deniseger considers becoming involved with any of the many environmental groups clamouring for his help.

He said just being nominated for the Premier’s Award was already a win. He recommends a career in the public service wholeheartedly and with a story from the early days in his career:

“It was a beautiful spring day, not a cloud in the sky, not a breath of wind. Myself and a colleague were driving along the shores of Buttle Lake in Strathcona Park in a truck with a boat trailer behind us. You couldn’t see where the lake ended and the mountains began,” Deniseger said. “He turned to me and said: ‘Do you realize there are people out there who’d pay good money to come out here and do this today?’ Then he says: ‘Do you realize those same people are paying us good money to come out here and do this today?”

It’s one of those things I never forgot. It’s just a reminder that it’s the public that’s hired us to look out for things on their behalf. There’s a definite responsibility associated with that. That’s what attracts you and that’s what keeps you.”


See video of John Deniseger at

Other Premier's Award Winners

There were seven winners of Premier’s Awards this year, Deniseger in the legacy category and the following:

Partnership: The Tahltan Socio-Cultural Working Group is a partnership between the province and Tahltan to shape the development of B.C.’s northwest by balancing economic and social development with cultural preservation.

• Cross-government integration: The Red Chris Inter-Agency team streamlined the process from reviewing mine projects in northwest B.C., reducing duplication of work and fostering partnerships between groups and agencies.

Organizational excellence: The Vancouver Coastal Health Integration and Outreach team helps remove service barriers for vulnerable citizens by integrating services and visiting communities in need throughout the province.

Leadership: From the Ministry of Transportation, Paula Cousins’ business case for road rehabilitation funding has saved money and ensured safe roads for citizens.

Innovation: Geotechnical Design Engineer Peter Bullock and his team developed an approach to road stabilization that cuts the time and cost of projects by half. It will be used across the province.

Emerging leader: Aaron Canuel’s leadership in conservation practices helped establish strong relationships in the Kootenay area, as well as protocols, plans and diverse partnerships for improvements.