The Esquimalt Lagoon is "our backyard" in the western community of Colwood and not in Esquimalt. The east end of the lagoon is quite shallow and enjoyed by many exploring sand dollars and crabs. The tide flows through a channel at this end leaving a "salt-water river" effect for families with children of all ages to have fun in the water. Low tide also reveals a vast expanse of sandy beach. The 2 mile sandy spit is Victoria's favourite family BBQ and picnic gathering spots. A variety of food trucks and musical entertainment are popular in the summer.
The Colwood shoreline is classified as a moist maritime Coastal Douglas-fir (CDFmm) biogeoclimatic (BGC) zone. The area experiences relatively warm, sunny weather in the summer and mild, wet winters. The area’s location is sheltered in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, and moderated by the Pacific Ocean. It yields drier weather than the exposed surrounding areas of Vancouver Island. Typical forests in the area are dominated by Douglas-Fir, Grand Fir, and Western Redcedar. Drier, rocky outcrop sites are populated by Arbutus, Garry Oaks, and their associated plant communities. The areas of old growth forest and mature second growth around the Esquimalt Lagoon provide a critical connection between the terrestrial and aquatic realms of the lagoon. These forests provide high value habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. They support lush floral biodiversity, maintain water quality and slope stability, provide food sources for aquatic life and avifauna, and hold more carbon than adjacent younger forest. In particular, the riparian forest provides shade, cover, and nesting opportunities for avifauna.
The Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary has been protected for nearly a century. It was initially started to minimize impacts related to over-hunting of waterfowl. Between October and May, thousands of waterfowl frequent the shallow, tidal waters of the lagoon, which provides important foraging and nesting habitat and supports both resident and migrant birds. The entire lagoon and 100m of surrounding land on the backshore of Esquimalt Lagoon, encompasses 134 hectares in total and regulates various activities and uses that are considered disruptive to migratory birds. Over 250 species of birds have been observed at the lagoon. The Pacific Blue Heron, a provincially blue-listed species is known to frequent the lagoon. In addition, regionally rare species such as the Brant (blue-listed), Eurasian Wigeon, American Golden-Plover (blue-listed), Common Tern, Horned Lark and Western Meadowlark have been observed. The lagoon is also home to an introduced, non-migratory population of Canada Geese. These resident geese have created significant problems with fecal coliform levels in surrounding waters, impacted crops for local farmers and denuded shoreline and salt marsh vegetation because of grazing. Control of geese (i.e.: egg addling) is recommended as a stewardship activity where feasible.
Several watercourses convey both groundwater and storm runoff from surrounding land into Esquimalt Lagoon. The water entering the lagoon provides important habitat for salmonids, forage fish, crustaceans, bivalves, and other vertebrates. The estuarine condition of the lagoon supports both eelgrass and kelp beds which provide spawning habitats for herring as well as foraging habitat for marine mammals, fish, and birds. Finer substrate sediments from the gravel pit operation helped create the sandy beaches along the spit which characteristically support forage fish spawning. The intertidal salt marsh habitat found along the perimeter of Esquimalt Lagoon is an important element of marine shorelines it provides food sources and cover for wildlife while offering resiliency against many issues related to sea level rise – including flood protection and carbon sequestration. In the past decades, the lagoon has been known to experience issues with water quality causing both algal blooms and fish kills. The cause of the blooms is unknown, but elevated nutrient input from stormwater discharges are suspected. In addition, the perimeter salt marsh areas are subject to trampling by pedestrian and dog traffic as well as damage from Canada Geese foraging and smothering from driftwood entering the lagoon.
Marshes are highly efficient at carbon sequestration and storage. However, the image (left) shows the inner lagoon shoreline, where logs are smothering the productivity of the marsh. Preliminary estimates suggest that carefully removing logs from the backshore area around the lagoon and preventing trampling could result in a 20% to 30% increase in marsh productivity.
SPECIES AT RISK
Data from the BC Conservation Data Centre (CDC) indicates a total of 37 species and ecological communities around the shoreline, north of Lagoon Rd. There were no at-risk elements known in the study area to the south. The CDC designation of ecological communities as “rare” is based on climax community conditions with very low disturbance history. In addition to the terrestrial and avian species and ecosystems at risk, the surrounding marine habitat has been designated as critical habitat for killer whales (Northeast Pacific Southern Resident population).
As part of the CWSP project’s multi-disciplinary shoreline assessment activities, Millennia Research Limited completed an Archaeological Overview Assessment (AOA), summarized as follows. The study area for the Colwood Waterfront Plan overlaps with eight known archaeological sites and is within 250m of ten additional sites. The study area is within the core traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. Additional First Nations with a stated interest in the study area include Tseycum, Tsawout, Tsartlip, Pauquachin, Lake Cowichan, Penelakut, Halalt, Stz’uminus, and Lyackson First Nations, Cowichan Tribes, and the members of the Te’Mexw Treaty Association, including Beecher Bay (SC'IA/ NEW) Nation, Malahat Nation, Snaw-Naw-as Nation, Songhees Nation and T-Sou-ke Nation. Colwood’s current operating principle is to undertake direct engagement with the three nearby First Nations communities of Esquimalt Nation, Songhees Nation and Beecher Bay Nation.
Paleoenvironmental studies of southern British Columbia indicate that although minor regional changes have continued since the last glaciation over 10,000 years ago, relatively modern environmental conditions were established between 4,500-3,000 BP. Archaeological evidence of indigenous use in and around the Esquimalt Lagoon area dates back to this time range, consistent with paeoenvironmental projections.
The Lekwungen people of the Southern Vancouver Island and Salish Sea area occupied numerous villages in the lands between Cowichan Head and Parry Bay. In the 1850’s, several autonomous First Nations groups, including the Teechamitsa, signed a treaty with James Douglas, chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company and later Governor of Vancouver Island. The treaty recognized the land within the CWSP study area.
The ancestors of Esquimalt and Songhees people intensively used the Esquimalt Harbour, Esquimalt Lagoon, and surrounding land into the early historic period. Plant resources, including raw materials, berries, and roots tubers were collected along the shore and inland of the harbour; bear, deer, elk, game birds, and duck and other waterfowl were hunted and trapped in the area and camps were established in several areas along the north shores of the lagoon. Fishing and shellfish harvesting took place in Esquimalt Lagoon and in Esquimalt Harbour.
Some local groups had their own winter village sites, and likely all local groups had their own seasonal fishing sites. Larger winter villages consisted of several houses representing several local groups and kin groups. Within winter villages, members of different households cooperated in some subsistence activities and shared abundance of perishable foods. At their discretion, houses also cooperated in defense strategies and in ceremonial activities. Among the Northern Straits peoples, villages consisted of single houses or clusters of shed-roofed or gabled houses built in a row (or occasionally rows) along the beach. Families in winter villages moved regularly for their annual activity rounds, and Coast Salish families took the wall planks of their houses with them to their seasonal villages. The Esquimalt and Songhees were marine oriented groups, spending a large portion of their time near the Gulf and San Juan Islands hunting and fishing. Different archaeological sites within the Esquimalt Lagoon area indicate that Esquimalt Lagoon possibly had seasonally distinct occupations.
PREVIOUS ARCHAEOLOGICAL STUDIES
The study area overlaps the boundaries of eight previously recorded archaeological sites. There are an additional 10 sites located within 250m of the study area. These archaeological sites include shell middens, a rock shelter, wet sites (an archaeological site that has a waterlogged component where wood, bark and other organic materials are preserved); lithics (stone tools or flake debris from the making of stone tools); and human remains and burial sites.
POST CONTACT USE OF THE ESQUIMALT LAGOON
Most of the early historic Euro-Canadian use of the Esquimalt Lagoon area has been associated with Fort Rodd Hill and the Hatley Park estate of James Dunsmuir, now known as the Royal Roads Campus. Post-contact use of the lagoon is summarized as follows:
Mid 1800's: Coburg Peninsula was used as a rifle range during the mid-1800’s but ceased operation as a rifle range when the area became more populated.
1860's-70's: The Royal Roads area was originally owned by David Cameron who established a sawmill at the mouth of the Colwood Creek in 1863 that was later purchased by the Belmont Tannery and Shoe Factory in 1871. Outside of the study area to the northeast of the Coburg Peninsula bridge is the Fisgard Lighthouse, Canada’s first lighthouse on the west coast and a National Historic Site. The lighthouse was built in 1860 by the British colonial administration, with an associated red brick house at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour.
Late 1800's: Fort Rodd Hill was built between 1894-95 by the Dominion Government as an Army installation (Garrison Artillery). In the late 1800’s, the site was developed for military use, which continued through the Second World War. The Royal Marine Artillery was initially in residence but was later replaced by the Canadian reserve troops (the 5th Regiment, under the various permutations of their name over the years) starting in 1906. Today, Fort Rodd Hill is recognized as a National Historic Site.
Early 1900's: Hatley Castle was constructed in the early 1900’s by bringing building materials in through Esquimalt Lagoon. David Cameron, James Douglas’ brother-in-law and the first Supreme Court Chief Justice for the colony of Vancouver Island, lived at Belmont Farm, adjacent to the north end of Esquimalt Lagoon. Much of the Belmont Farm, including the location of the dwelling structure, was located on land now occupied by Fort Rodd Hill. Cabins and summer homes were built along the spit but were removed in 1940 when the DND began using the peninsula as a firing range again. A pub known to locals as the Dugout Pub was built at the northeast end of the peninsula around 1920 and was in service until the 1940’s, when the building was destroyed by fire. DND House (also known as the ranger station was constructed after the fire and was then decommissioned in 2013 as the building was no longer in use and had suffered considerable water and storm damage. Beginning in 1909, gravel was mined from Producer’s Pit. The excess sand from gravel mining was placed on the beach and gravel was loaded onto barges in the bay until the 1990’s.
- Mid 1900's: Active military use of Fort Rodd Hill continued until 1956 (past the Second World War) when the site was decommissioned. It's Fortress Plotting Room was a key Cold War communications and aerial traffic monitoring station. Parks Canada took over management of Fort Rodd Hill in the 1960’s. The lighthouse was automated in 1929 and continues to remain an active navigational aid to this day.
Source and credit for content is the Colwood Waterfront Stewardship Plan (pdf)