City of Victoria eyes plan to restore Dallas bluffs

$6-million “wish list” project a long-term solution for parks department

City manager of parks construction and natural areas

Earlier this spring, CFB Esquimalt fenced off large parcels of Macaulay Point Park to protect two endangered plant species.

Now, the City of Victoria is seeking input into a much more ambitious restoration plan for the Dallas Road bluffs, which is also home to the plants, the dense-flowered lupine and purple sanicle.

The city has known about the existence of these rare species for a while, but was spurred to action in 2009 when a section of the bluffs slumped, or collapsed, said Todd Stewardson, Victoria’s manager of parks construction and natural areas. Around the same time, the city was contacted by the federal department in charge of protected species and learned it was responsible for protecting this critical habitat.

“We weren’t entirely sure what they meant, because it varies with each species,” Stewardson said. “There’s no clear, stock answer that goes from coast to coast.”

The city enlisted the expertise of consulting engineering firm Kerr Wood Leidal.

More than two years later, it has a $6-million, five-year action plan to stabilize the bluffs and restore native vegetation by clearing invasive species and limiting recreational use in sensitive areas.

“By following this plan, the city is undertaking the kind of stewardship we’re looking for,” said Ken Brock, head of protected areas and stewardship for the Canadian Wildlife Service. “We can’t require a local government to do it. If, however, protection is not in place, there is the option to put a federal regulation in place that will provide that protection. But we vastly prefer a stewardship-first approach.”

The challenge for the city will be to slow the erosion without halting it completely.

Bluffs erode naturally, without interference from human forces, and some native species-at-risk require erosion to thrive.

“They only grow on slightly eroded soils,” Stewardson said.

Hard infrastructure, such as a retaining wall, isn’t up for consideration, he added. Instead, the city will plant strategically to let root structures do the work of slowing erosion.

The consultant also suggests a strategy called beach nourishment.

When waves lap the shore, they pull away at the beach, drawing sand, pebbles or other materials into the ocean, Stewardson explained. “The idea is to actually replace that beach material … so the ocean has something to pull back and ‘feed on,’ so to speak.”

Building up the beach in this way would slow erosion of the bluffs – but it’s one of the most costly elements in the action plan, he said.

“That’s something that as staff, we’re still chewing on.”

Before the city makes such a big investment, staff also need to get a handle on the scope of the erosion problem. Previous reports from the 1970s through the ‘90s have estimated it is receding anywhere from 0.01 to 0.1 metres per year.

“How much do we need to slow it down?” Stewardson asked.

Over at Macaulay Point, habitat restoration has so far consisted of $50,000 in fencing, paid for by CFB Esquimalt.

Whether Victoria city council will have an appetite to spend $6 million for habitat restoration in a time of fiscal restraint is the next question.

Coun. Chris Coleman, who represents the James Bay neighbourhood bordering the bluffs, said there is merit to the plan. While the city absolutely needs to do more to protect the bluffs, he said, Coleman admitted feeling some sticker shock at the price tag.

“If you allocate more money to an initiative on its merits, then what are you choosing not to be involved in?” he asked.

Stewardson, however, says work will continue on the bluffs, whether or not the department is given extra money. Some of the project costs are already built in to the annual parks operating budget, such as money for the removal of invasive species.

The bluffs will simply move up this priority list. The $6 million is a “grand wish list,” he said.

“We haven’t budgeted for it, because up until now we had no idea how much this is going to cost.”

Up next

• The city will present its plan to the Fairfield community for input. The date for the public consultation has yet to be set. Check for updates.

What are bluffs?

A bluff is a steep cliff or bank.

The Lekwungen name for the bluffs is Heel-ng-ikum, meaning “falling away bank” according to First Nations research done by consultant Dave Murray of Kerr Wood Leidal.

The waterfront bluffs that run along Dallas Road are part of a broader Garry oak ecosystem, marked by a Mediterranean climate, loose soil and a relatively treeless maritime meadow, said Ken Brock, head of protected areas and stewardship with the Canadian Wildlife Service.

“These ecosystems occur … every once in a while, all the way down the West Coast of North America,” he said. “What we’re seeing is the northern extent of this ecosystem … It just kind of pokes its nose into Canada here.”

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