Dikes, Ducks, and Dams: An Unpredictable Environmental History of Creston Flats, 1883-2014

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Ronald Rudin recently posted on Acadian aboiteaux farming in New Brunswick, a practice that became a central part of Acadian identity. In Creston, a small town in southeastern British Columbia, agricultural diking projects along the Kootenay River likewise transformed the landscape and shaped community responses to everything from international treaties to wildlife management. Local attempts to order and manage the river perpetuated the idea of dangerous flooding and complicated human claims to the river. I had a chance to explore this history in a recent article for BC Studies.

Creston Valley farmers reinforce dikes along the Kootenay River during the 1948 flood. Photo: Creston and District Museum and Archives [CDMA], “Agriculture” file, photo #5.

Framed from east and west by the Purcell and Selkirk mountain ranges, the Creston Flats stretch along the twisting Kootenay River north to Kootenay Lake and south to the American border. In the 1880s, British adventure writer William Adolph Baillie-Grohman began the first diking and dredging scheme to prevent flooding on these rich alluvial lands. Guy Constable, Baillie-Grohman’s self-proclaimed successor, tried again in the early half of the twentieth century. By supplying fruit and fodder for local mining operations and exports via the Kootenays’ new railroads, Creston agriculture became very profitable.

This prosperity excluded many locals. A reclamation scheme in nearby Lister that created farmland for returning World War I soldiers collapsed, while erratic floods destroyed other dikes.1 Reclamation projects also curtailed access by the Yaqan Nu?kiy (the Lower Kootenay Band, part of the Ktunaxa Nation) to a river that has been central to their culture and subsistence for centuries.2

This 1942 map shows reclamation schemes at Creston Flats (the green, yellow, and pink areas) as well as a proposed new reclamation project at Dike Lake (red). Interventions by conservation and sports hunting enthusiasts instead led to the creation of the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area around Duck Lake. Image courtesy of the CDMA. Guy Constable, “The Application of Creston Reclamation Company for Permission to Construct Permanent Works Adjacent to Kootenay River,” Creston, 1942, 1, CDMA, Guy Constable Files, MS-86-72-30, box 30, file 1.

Meanwhile, the dikes came to inform regional land use debates. When Constable and his allies tried to expand reclamation projects northward to Duck Lake in the 1930s and 1940s they ran up against local sports hunters, US and Canadian conservationists, and eventually governments worried about wildfowl populations devastated by DDT use and habitat loss.

During a 1947 International Joint Commission hearing to decide the fate of Duck Lake, Canadian Wildlife Service Officer James Munro told locals that:

[Duck Lake] is yours and mine. The idea [of reclamationists] is to take it away from us … [Its value] as an historical monument, as a wild life monument, is something precious that we must preserve. It really transcends in wild life value or anything else, because we cannot get it back.3

Reclamation supporters scorned these conservation concerns and sarcastically urged their “friends to the South” (American hunters) to shoot seagulls and flamingos instead.4 They argued that ducks had actually flourished by eating crops grown on reclaimed land, a fact contested by Munro. This led to a bizarre moment during the hearing when a flummoxed Creston farmer was asked if he had thoroughly autopsied the stomachs of ducks shot on his farm. (He had not, and the hearing continued.)5

Much as Shannon Stunden Bower and Jeremy Wilson have shown, reconciliation only became possible when Canadian conservation plans incorporated the demands of local agricultural producers and other interests.6 The Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area (CVWMA), created in 1968 along the west side of the Creston Valley, exemplified this type of compromise. Wildlife Area managers provided grazing lands for farmers, while the provincial government repaired an older dike near Duck Lake.7 Most importantly for Creston farmers, the refuge provided flood protection for reclaimed lands.

The BC government portrayed the new 7,000-hectare wildlife area as an offset replacing wildlife habitat “lost” to megaproject flooding. During debates about these megaprojects, Creston’s reclaimed bottomlands were deemed productive and valuable, whereas other communities (i.e. those flooded by the Arrow Lakes dams) were dismissed as unattractive wastelands.8 Creston farmers like Guy Constable supported this narrative in order to promote the Libby Dam, which they saw as a permanent solution to Kootenay River floods. In 1959, Constable told southeastern British Columbia business leaders that the Libby Dam—and the Columbia River Treaty that would authorize it—was “our strength or the rock on which we split.”9

If the Libby’s construction was a victory for Creston, it was an uneven one. In 1951, a Creston farmer compared the dam to a trip to the dentist:

We are something like the man who has a very bad tooth… He knows that he is going to be much better if he has the tooth removed. He does not know how much it is going to cost him, and the second thing that he does not know is how bad it is going to hurt.10

In supporting the construction of the Libby Dam, the farmers of Creston Flats traded one uncertainty for another. The dam disrupted the Kootenay River’s ecology and led to a reduction in fish-spawning grounds.11 And during the early 2000s, the Libby’s spillway release tests eroded Creston’s reclamation works.12

The dikes are still visible today at the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area.  Photo: Anne Dance
Dikes are still visible today at the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area. Photo: Anne Dance

Dikes, duck refuges, and dams have all been co-opted to protect Creston’s agricultural lands, often with unexpected consequences. Despite numerous attempts to control the Kootenay, the river’s natural processes continue to assert themselves today when, during flood years, the river spills into the bottomlands. Over the next few decades, Creston’s reclamation works will continue to figure into debates about the Kootenay River’s diminished water quality, preserving the CVWMA, and changes to BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve system.

Anne stumbled upon Creston while writing what was intended to be a study of the Columbia River Treaty. You can read her article in BC Studies here: “Dikes, Ducks, and Dams: Environmental Change and the Politics of Reclamation at Creston Flats, 1882-2014,” BC Studies 184 (Winter 2015): 11-44. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the University of Victoria’s Department of History generously funded this project. Many people helped make the study possible, including Rick Rajala, Greg Blue, and Anne’s wonderful History graduate cohort at UVic; Creston Museum curator Tammy Hardwick; Carla Ahern at the CVWMA; Wynndel farmer Cyril Colonel; and two heroic Cranbrook beekeepers.

Feature Image: The dikes are still visible today at the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area. Photo: Anne Dance


[1] James Murton, Creating a Modern Countryside: Liberalism and Land Resettlement in British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007).

[2] Bruce Stadfeld, “Electric Space: Social and Natural Transformations in British Columbia’s Hydroelectric Industry to World War II,” (PhD. diss., University of Manitoba, 2002), 110-64.

[3] The Application of Creston Reclamation Company Limited for Permission to Construct Certain Permanent Works Adjacent to the Kootenay River and its East Branch, for the Reclamation of Certain Flood Lands Between the International Boundary and Kootenay Lake, near Sirdar, Creston, British Columbia, 13 and 14 November 1947, 153. British Columbia Ministry of Forestry Library, 627.1/I61I.

[4] Ibid, 59.

[5] Ibid, 234.

[6] Shannon Stunden Bower, Wet Prairie: People, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011), 130; and Jeremy Wilson, “For the Birds? Neoliberalism and the Protection of Biodiversity in British Columbia,” BC Studies 142-43 (2004): 258.

[7] Creston Review, 1 August 1973.

[8] Tina Loo, “People in the Way: Modernity, Environment, and Society on the Arrow Lakes,BC Studies 142-143 (2004): 161-96; and Philip van Huizen, “Building a Green Dam: Environmental Modernism and the Canadian-American Libby Dam Project,” Pacific Historical Review 79, 3 (2010): 418-53.

[9] Creston District Museum and Archives, Guy Constable Files, MS-86-72-11, box 11, file 2, p. 10, Meeting minutes of the Water Resources Committee of the ACCSEBC, 2 December 1959.

[10] In the Matter of the Application of the Government of the United States re. Libby Dam, Nelson, British Columbia, 12 January 1951, 57, BCA, British Columbia, Ministry of Environment Water Management Branch, GR-1427, box 1, file 22.

[11] Susan Toller and Peter N. Nemetz, “Assessing the Impact of Hydro Development: A Case Study of the Columbia River Basin in British Columbia,” BC Studies 114 (1997): 5, 12-13.

[12] Northwest Hydraulic Consultants, Ltd., Kootenay River Erosion Study (Draft) (Creston: Association of Kootenay Valley Drainage Districts, 1999), 1, 28.

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Anne Dance

Academic Director
Dr. Anne Dance is the director of the Canadian Political Science Association's Parliamentary Internship Programme. Her many research interests include the travel writings of agricultural expert E. Cora Hind, public space and Canadian legislatures, the Athabasca oil sands, the Sydney tar ponds, and mine site remediation in the Arctic.


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