George and Luka Kovacic have been advocating for action from various levels of government after seeing raw sewage spewing out of this manhole. Photo: (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

The budding biologist and the amateur investigator

Luka and George Kovacic, a father-son duo, have made a name for themselves in their advocacy for their local stream.

By Dustin Godfrey | August 5, 2021 |3:41 am

Juvenile fish float and flutter in a pocket of water a few feet deep, carved into a corner of Stoney Creek, as water trickles downstream around it.

Looming over the pool is less of a bank and more of a tiny cliff. Lying belly-down on the ground, with his head poking out over the edge, is Luka Kovacic.

The 12-year-old is surveying the group of fish, trying to determine which are salmon, and which are trout. Even with his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of local water creatures, it’s hard to tell—the ledge is still a couple of metres up, and it casts a shadow on the water.

He’ll have to get into the creek to get a better look, making use of the waders his dad, George, bought for him.

This section of Stoney Creek, where it runs behind his house and tributary 3A, is a regular spot for Luka. Nearby, he climbs down a slope and steps into the creek, walking carefully toward the pool.

“Those down there are coho [salmon]. I could easily tell that one,” Luka says from his new vantage point, leaning closely over the water and pointing at a group of smaller fish.

During the annual salmon count, Luka’s sharp eye is an asset, George explains.

“He’ll find all the fish, and all of them [say], ‘Where do you see it? You’re right; they are there,’” George says.

This was demonstrated earlier in a tour of Stoney Creek—a few hundred metres upstream, Luka climbs down to the water level, carefully stepping from stone to stone to get up close to a culvert that directs stormwater into the creek. Once there, he points to a dark spot in the water—there are some fish.

Straining one’s eyes, a small group of fish, pushing against the current to hover in place, is barely visible.

It’s in this location, however, that Stoney Creek has come under George’s magnifying glass.

Guided by the expertise of his son, a budding aquatic biologist, George has led an amateur investigation into contaminants in the water, some of which appear to have been sourced from the culvert.

Most recently, a contamination appears to have killed upwards of 300 fish.

The discovery

Stoney Creek
Luka Kovacic exploring at Stoney Creek. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

Typically, Stoney Creek is clear, but on this day it was a murky greyish-white—definitely not right, though Luka at first thought someone might have stepped in some clay.

Some of Luka’s cousins from Edmonton were in town, so last Thursday he took them to see the creek he’s come to every day for years. The creek runs behind his house, marking the frontier between the relatively natural space of Burnaby Mountain and the cityscape of Burquitlam.

The group didn’t see any fish that day, but when Luka returned the next day, the water was looking even more polluted, and this time he found dead fish, an endangered eel and water striders.

Luka scoured the stream from the culvert just west of North Road down to Broadway, counting the dead fish.

“There’s probably more. I counted around 300 [dead fish] in total,” Luka says. “I went up the creek from the tributary to the culvert and counted around 150 there, and then more going down. And also the blue herons were eating the fish, so there could have easily been more.”

To the father-son duo, the source was obvious—the water was clear coming from tributary 3A, and it was clear upstream of the culvert. In fact, just upstream from the culvert, everything survived.

Luka and George took samples of the water above and below the culvert and gave them to Kevin Ryan, president of the Mossom Creek Hatchery and Education Centre, to have them tested.

A curious mind

Two images show dead fish in the stream while a third photo shows a murky substance in the water.
Dead fish litter Stoney Creek after a murky substance polluted the water. (George Kovacic / Submitted)

The Kovacic family first came into contact with Ryan during the pandemic, when his organization was offering a new kind of educational program at Mossom Creek, which feeds water from Eagle Mountain into the Burrard Inlet.

During the pandemic they began weeklong programs for homeschooled students at 3 hours a day—perfect for Luka, who wanted more than just a glance at the natural world.

“I was on site for a number of times that [Luka] was there, and I have to say that he’s very impressive for a 12-year-old,” Ryan says.

“He is very passionate about the environment, and he’s learned a lot through these courses, and it’s nice to see. This is the joy that we get in what we do because we see this all the time in our young people.”

Luka has been passionate about nature for as long as he could remember. George recalls bringing his family to Luka’s grandfather’s farm when he was 5 or 6.

“Grandpa can’t go out and work with the cows without Luka,” George says.

In 2020, the 12-year-old and his father joined the Stoney Creek Environment Committee, including joining the group’s salmon counts and other initiatives, as well as attending regular meetings. All the while, Luka was completing 2 grades (6 and 7) during the pandemic.

And Luka’s knack for listing off facts about the creek and its inhabitants has an outlet beyond those he takes to the stream.

His YouTube channel, Luka’s World Adventures, has 27 public videos, some dating as far back as 3 years ago, each brimming with Luka’s innate enthusiasm for the natural world.

Videos cover everything from a visit to the Cleveland Dam to a bear in his yard to the northern alligator lizard. But most of his videos lately have focused on fish—especially the salmon that spawn in Stoney Creek.

His most recent video, published on Aug 1, covers the recent fish kill he discovered. In the video, it’s clear the incident has troubled him—he does his regular intro (“Hey guys, and welcome back on Luka’s World Adventures!”), but it isn’t punctuated with the energy that defines his YouTube presence.

In that video, he notes 2020 was a particularly strong year for salmon returns in Stoney Creek. But this incident, he says, could spell trouble for future returns.

Sewage overflow

Stoney Creek
Raw sewage overflows from a manhole on North Road in early 2021. (George Kovacic / Submitted)

Through Luka’s time at the education centre, the Kovacic family got to know Ryan, and they were able to work with him on an ongoing issue—potential sewage contamination of Stoney Creek.

And that issue is how George first got heavily involved in this work. In early 2020, a rainstorm caused a surge of water in Coquitlam’s sewage system in the area where North Road crosses Stoney Creek. That caused raw sewage to spew out of a manhole, and things like toilet paper wound up strewn across the road.

George and Luka were particularly concerned that the overflow may have contaminated the creek.

Since then, George has been on a mission, seeking answers from various levels of government, from the federal government.

Over the last year-and-a-half, he’s filed a couple dozen freedom of information requests and ultimately found that Metro Vancouver had, indeed, run E. coli tests of the creek at the time of the sewage incident and found significantly raised levels of the bacteria (up to 8,000 colony forming units, at one point—the US Environmental Protection Agency considers just a few hundred CFU to be the maximum acceptable amount in single tests) in the water.

Since then, other documents obtained by George have shown that the City of Coquitlam is planning to replace one of the sewage lines feeding a nearby Metro Vancouver trunk line, as the Burquitlam area continues to grow.

Near the tangle of cul-de-sacs and twisting roads filled with single-family homes that make up the Kovacics’ neighbourhood, a group of towers loom overhead. The Lougheed mall area is among the faster growing areas in the region, with Burnaby and Coquitlam both approving numerous towers and major developments in the area.

And with growth comes demand for services, including sewage. As a result, the City of Coquitlam is planning to build a new sewage line, at 900mm in diameter, in the area around Stoney Creek. The problem, says George, is that the Metro Vancouver trunk line it feeds into is just 250mm.

Metro Vancouver staff told George this is not a major concern for overflow, however, as the system is based not on pressure but on gravity. This means, according to a Metro Vancouver staffer, who wrote in an email to Kovacic, an upstream increase in capacity “effectively provides additional storage capacity, … reducing the risk of sanitary sewer overflows from Coquitlam’s system.”

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a problem—George says he and his family have been reporting sewage overflows at North Road for the last 10 years, after living in the area for 16 years.

And Coquitlam’s rapidly growing population in the area is worrisome for George if Metro Vancouver’s sewage capacity doesn’t grow with it.

Making progress

Two towers stand tall over a row of single family houses.
Large developments have been going up in the Burquitlam area on both sides of the municipal borders. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

George’s advocacy work appears to be making headway. Conservative MP Nelly Shin, from the neighbouring Port Moody-Coquitlam riding, brought the issue of sewage flowing into Stoney Creek up in Parliament recently.

And Metro Vancouver does appear to be looking at expanding its trunk line around Stoney Creek. Liquid waste services director of engineering, design, and construction Colin Meldrum says staff hope to get the project into the 2022 budget. That means design work could get underway next year, but it’s unclear when shovels may actually hit the ground.

“Until we get a handle on [permitting and property issues], we won’t have a firm schedule for construction,” Meldrum says. “But it is a project we’re taking seriously, and we are looking at moving it forward.”

Finding successes in bureaucratic systems may not be the easiest of tasks, says Ryan.

“There’s a great deal of frustration,” Ryan says, speaking from his own experience advocating on behalf of the Mossom Creek centre. “And a lot of times, the people in power just hope you go away. They just hope you get so frustrated with the bureaucracy that you throw your hands up and say, ‘OK, I can’t do any more.’ And I think George is going to reach that point, too, because at some point it’s like hitting your head against the wall.”

Meldrum acknowledges that it can be difficult for the layperson to peel back the layers of the various jurisdictions involved in many issues, but he says officials at all levels “are taking this issue seriously.”

For the most part, George’s successes have taken the form of attention—that is, attention from media, from politicians, and from bureaucrats—but he also successfully got meters installed on manholes for a time (he says they have since been removed), and the new Metro Vancouver trunk line could add to his victories.

When an oily substance appeared to be coming from the culvert into Stoney Creek, George was able to get movement on that as well, getting a barricade in the water to block the substance from flowing into the creek.

‘Like a dog with a bone’

Stoney Creek
A barrier was set up to block an oily substance from the culvert from contaminating the stream after George and Luka Kovacic raised the alarms. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

Any success George has found is due to the work he’s put into it—the countless FOI requests he’s filed, the hundreds of pages of documents he’s reviewed, all of the communications to local, provincial, and federal officials, and the interviews he’s done with the media.

Neighbours and fellow amateur conservationists alike tell Burnaby Beacon of George’s dogged work on protecting the creek.

“George has done a tremendous amount of work. … I’m very impressed with how diligent he’s been. And he’s just like a dog with a bone; he won’t let this thing go,” Ryan says.

The Mossom Creek organization and the Stoney Creek Environmental Committee and others like them are entirely volunteer-based groups, and Ryan says that offers certain advantages. Namely, they’re not necessarily reliant on funding, so they can be more strident in their advocacy and speak their minds.

But there are disadvantages as well.

John Templeton, president of the Stoney Creek Environment Committee, says this issue would likely never have gotten as much traction as it has without George’s work.

“We’re totally a volunteer-based group. … So all my volunteer stuff is after I do my paid work and I deal with all the other things that are going on in my life,” Templeton says. “Having someone like George step forward and take the lead on this particular issue has been wonderful.”

But George himself says his diligence on this matter has been inspired by his son’s curiosity about the world that’s almost literally in his backyard.

Not their day jobs

Stoney Crreek
A group of fish hover in place in Stoney Creek. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

Many of the people doing this work aren’t conservationists by trade. George is an advisor in the oil and gas industry, and Ryan was in marketing and sales before he retired and got into conservation. Another Stoney Creek Environmental Committee member, Alan James, is a retired geologist.

That means there may be a learning curve to getting involved, but Ryan says this is easily overcome through the kind of hands-on work that drives people to get involved in the first place.

All of them have gotten into advocating for a little slice of their communities that they see as precious and in need of protection.

Now that George and Luka are involved, it’s unclear if or when they’ll get a break.

George’s hands were full dealing with the sewage issue and the oily substance coming from the culvert.

Now, the dead fish are looking like another new major issue altogether.

Over the long weekend, Ryan was able to have a chemistry teacher who does work with the Mossom Creek centre—which does weekly testing of Mossom Creek—test the samples George and Luka took from Stoney Creek.

Ryan believes a cement truck from a construction site was washed out and the water dumped into a stormwater drain.

“They tested [the water] and what they found was exactly what we thought, because the pH level was 10.8, which is extremely high. And it means that there was definitely something in there,” Ryan says.

They can’t know for sure, however—to actually find out what the substance in the water was would take a much more official lab than any of them have access to.

The City of Coquitlam didn’t respond to a request for comment from the Beacon, but an official told Tri-City News the city is doing its own testing. And it has identified a potential source—a contractor doing geotechnical work.

As for the dead fish, George says he’s got a bag of them—along with an endangered western brook lamprey eel, also found dead in the creek—in his freezer.

A Burnaby official told George the city doesn’t have the facilities to test the dead fish, pointing him instead to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“I sent emails to DFO and Environment Canada, and I’m hoping they can do tests on the fish,” George says. “Nobody wants the dead fish as of yet. I’m hoping that somebody picks them up.”

Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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