Locals Raise Concerns About Plan to Flood 70-Hectare Vancouver Island Farm for Estuary Expansion Project

The project, which aims to convert the farm into marshland and marsh channels, has angered locals who say they weren’t consulted.
Locals Raise Concerns About Plan to Flood 70-Hectare Vancouver Island Farm for Estuary Expansion Project
A sign erected by the Land Keepers Leadership Society, which is working to stop the flooding of productive farmland as part of an estuary restoration project in the Cowichan Valley, B.C. (Jeff Sandes/The Epoch Times)
Jeff Sandes

A decision to flood a patch of prime farmland on southern Vancouver Island and expand an estuary has rallied local residents to form an organization and hire a law firm to try and stop the project.

The area in question is the Cowichan Estuary, a 400-hectare ecosystem nestled in scenic Cowichan Bay, about 50 kilometres north of Victoria, B.C. There, freshwater from the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers and nutrients from the land mix with seawater in the Salish Sea to create a rich habitat for aquatic life.

The expansion initiative, known as the Cowichan Estuary Restoration Project, will repurpose a historic farm nearly 70 hectares in size largely into marshland and marsh channels, including over 100 acres of corn and grass crops.

The project is a five-year initiative launched in 2019 by Nature Trust of British Columbia, the majority owner of Dinsdale Farm. After some three years of surveys, research, and assessments, the project reported that without the restoration, 60 percent of the estuary marsh habitat will be lost.

Although estuaries comprise only 2.3 percent of B.C.’s coastline, they support over 80 percent of the province’s coastal fish and wildlife, according to the project’s website. An estuary is an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean.

The $3 million project aims to restore 70 hectares of marsh habitat.

“Positioned on the traditional territory of the Quw’utsun people (Cowichan Tribes), the Cowichan Estuary Project is the largest estuary restoration projects to ever occur on Vancouver Island,” the website says.

But the newly formed, not-for-profit Land Keepers Leadership Society disputes most of Nature Trust’s findings and has retained legal representation to try and delay the restoration project, if not see it abandoned altogether, until project organizers meet the requirements Land Keepers says were ignored or overlooked by government agencies.

Farmland ‘in a Crisis Mode’

Nature Trust, whose partners include individual donors, corporations, foundations, NGOs, and all levels of government as well as First Nations, announced the plans for the estuary expansion on June 6 after getting the province’s go-ahead in the spring. The announcement surprised and angered local residents who claim they weren’t consulted beforehand.
Further, the original owner of the farm, Nigel Dinsdale, spoke at an Aug. 14 Land Keepers town hall and said that he “sat at the table when the deal was done” and that the property was supposed to remain forever as farmland as part of the deal when his family sold it to Nature Trust and Ducks Unlimited Canada in 1990.

“I’m absolutely appalled and shocked to think that after all these years, you can just turn around and knock it [the deal] down,” Mr. Dinsdale told the audience.

“Farmland is in a crisis mode,” he added.

According to Jack McLeod, president and co-founder of Land Keepers, Ducks Unlimited was represented by Les Bogdan during the sale by Mr. Dinsdale’s family and became the property’s minority owner.

The Epoch Times tried to reach Mr. Bogdan for comment but without success. Ducks Unlimited communications specialist Chantelle Abma said Mr. Bogdan is no longer with the organization but confirmed that Ducks Unlimited fully supports the project and the estuary expansion.

“I can certainly confirm that we have scientific merit and basis for why we wanted to move forward with the project,” Ms. Abma told The Epoch Times.

“We do care deeply about agriculture, and we do take the concerns very heavily of the folks who have concerns, and we work with agricultural producers on all levels as often as we can, so the ecosystem services that I mentioned prior benefit everyone, and that certainly includes agricultural producers.”

A field of stubble at the Dinsdale Farm in Cowichan, B.C., after corn was harvested in the fall of 2023. (Jeff Sandes/The Epoch Times)
A field of stubble at the Dinsdale Farm in Cowichan, B.C., after corn was harvested in the fall of 2023. (Jeff Sandes/The Epoch Times)

‘They Don’t Know the Background’

While Mr. McLeod doesn’t argue about Ducks Unlimited’s commitment to hunters and the environment, he said Mr. Bogdan was so disappointed with the organization that it led him to join Land Keepers as one of its directors.

“Les Bogdan is a director on the society because he’s so upset with the whole thing, terribly upset,” Mr. McLeod said in an interview.

“What Les’s comment is, is mostly all of the people that originally made this deal are either retired or dead. There’s a new bunch of people in both Nature Trust and Ducks Unlimited, so they don’t know the background, that’s the problem. They don’t know the background, or as often is the case they have different priorities. Or they ignore them, because who’s [left] to contradict anything they’re saying?”

Land Keepers lawyer Carly Haynes has cautioned its directors from speaking publicly about the case as she prepares her arguments. Ms. Haynes declined to speak to The Epoch Times.

However, one person who is speaking is Gerald Poelman, owner of Sunny Vale Farm, who had farmed the Dinsdale property for the past 28 years under a long-term lease until Nature Trust evicted him over the summer.
The farm is located inside the Agricultural Land Reserve, in which agriculture is recognized as the priority use, but the province’s reconciliation efforts with First Nations overrides its protected status, Country Life in BC reported in July. In May, the province signed a watershed planning agreement with the Cowichan Tribes that will result in the flooding of the farm.

Still emotionally raw from losing the farm, Mr. Poelman told The Epoch Times he still has a dairy farm a few kilometres away but expects his farming career will soon end.

“It is devastating for my business,” he said. “It’s pretty much going to put me out of business. I’ll probably survive for a little while here until the full impact kicks in. But it’s not about me, it’s about what they’re doing with the land. They’re destroying the best agricultural land in the Cowichan Valley, and they’re cutting all these farmers off upstream.”

A field at the Dinsdale Farm in Cowichan, B.C., in the fall of 2023. (Jeff Sandes/The Epoch Times)
A field at the Dinsdale Farm in Cowichan, B.C., in the fall of 2023. (Jeff Sandes/The Epoch Times)


For Mr. Poelman, the scientific legwork Nature Trust says it has done is acting as a cover for the most challenging part of owning the landmaintaining the dikeswhich he said hasn’t been done adequately.

As part of the project, over two kilometres of dikes will be removed.

“The bottom line is Nature Trust and Ducks Unlimited own this property and they’ve neglected to maintain the dikes,” Mr. Poelman said. “They got an estimate to repair it at $9 million, and they don’t want to pay, so let’s get the federal government and let’s come up with this all this science. And all their science is based on modelling, but modelling is all hypothetical and they’ve never been challenged on it. There’s been no public consultation, nothing.”

The Epoch Times reached out to Nature Trust but did not receive a reply.

However, Tom Reid, manager of Nature Trust’s West Coast Conservation Land Management Program, said during a virtual information session on the project that when Nature Trust acquired the Dinsdale Farm and the bordering Koksilah Marsh, it began work to protect and provide safe access to birds, fish, and other wildlife.

He noted that they used modelling tools to assess the Cowichan-Koksilah estuary and gave it a score of two, meaning the estuary was at risk. He agreed that the assessment project was “complicated” and that Nature Trust came up with several models to determine potential developments.

“What those models showed us was that overall, the project that we had identified, was that water conveyances improved, there’s a lower duration of flooding in the area, [and] the flood water depths on all the adjacent private properties on Lochmanetz Road, Cowichan tribes land, and some properties on Cowichan Bay Road including Cowichan Bay Lawn Tennis Club, water levels are reduced,” Mr. Reid said.

The rivers and tributaries that drain into Cowichan Bay tend to create seasonal flooding during the fall, which Mr. Reid said would abate based on their modelling.

Although the official website for the estuary restoration project addresses many potential concerns opponents could or currently hold, Mr. McLeod and his Land Keepers partners dispute much of the project’s explanations. He has been advised not to speak to specifics while their legal battle remains unsettled.

The Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship said in a statement to The Epoch Times that “farmland and wetlands are both vitally important to people in B.C.”

“The goal of the Cowichan River Estuary Restoration Project is to protect vital habitat for salmon, shellfish and other aquatic wildlife by restoring 70 hectares of marshland. This is important work for all of us,” the statement said.