Saltwater should flow in Vancouver’s most prominent artificial lake

Google’s view of Lost Lagoon clearly shows its relationship to the nearby ocean

Not long ago I was reading a book about the history of Vancouver and how it has developed over the last 100 years or so. Vancouver’s West End was once characterized by rows of single family homes, and today with its wall of green glass highrises it is perceived as one of the most sustainable and modern neighbourhoods on the planet. This “progress” required past generations to develop the natural environment to create the neighbourhoods we so cherish today.

As our city forefathers tamed the landscape they did things that that would be unthinkable here today, like filling the False Creek Flats and cutting off Lost Lagoon from the ocean. It surprises some people to know that Lost Lagoon – a freshwater lake today – was connected to Coal Harbour a century ago. When First Nations first inhabited the South Coast, Lost Lagoon would actually rise and fall with the incoming tides. Today it is the home to various waterfowl and plants that typify a lake and not the oceanside.

While the lagoon is pretty to look at, is it time to open up a debate regarding whether it should be returned to an ocean environment? As some media have reported over the last year or so, the lack of daily “flushing” by local tides has turned this body of water into a veritable cesspool of bacteria. In fact, during last year’s heat wave the still waters of Lost Lagoon turned into a murky mess of green slime. Local scientists said the ‘green’ sludge which covered the water had to do with the record high temperatures and lack of any natural cleansing of the water.

An excerpt from Wikipedia helps to put this issue into context:

Native food gatherers used the low tide mudflats as a source for clams, and a midden on the north side indicates that a large dwelling once stood there. In the Sḵwxwú7mesh language, the name is Ch’ekxwa’7lech, meaning "gets dry at times". Settlers also built cabins around the lake, which were all removed between 1913 and 1916 during construction of the causeway. The lake was created in 1916 by the construction of the Stanley Park causeway. Prior to its creation, Lost Lagoon was a shallow part of Coal Harbour, now separated by Georgia Street, which itself is an extension of Burrard Inlet.

It’s interesting that the labour movement actually wanted to pave over the lake and turn it into a sports field, something that the Park Board eventually rejected. Here is another interesting excerpt from Wikipedia:

When the causeway was first proposed in 1909, an intense public debate took place over the fate of the basin. As with most of the early controversies concerning the use of Stanley Park, organized labour was pitted against the more upper and middle class proponents of the City Beautiful movement. Trade union representatives argued that the majority working class population was in need of recreational facilities, while their opponents maintained that more aesthetic or ethereal considerations should take precedence in park development

The Vancouver Trades and Labour Council was adamantly opposed to the idea of an artificial lake, and argued for it to instead be filled in for use as a sports field. The park board retained the services of T. Mawson and Associates, an architectural landscaping firm that had designed the park’s zoo and many other facilities in Stanley Park. The proposal the board settled on featured an artificial lake with a sports stadium on the northwest side and a large museum on the southwest shore. The $800,000 price tag, however, proved too steep for the board’s budget, and the non-lake parts of the proposal were quashed.

The next phase in the lake’s development came in 1929, when the saltwater pipes entering from Coal Harbour were shut off, turning it into a freshwater lake. The BC Fish and Game Protection Association was given permission to stock the lake with trout. The Stanley Park Flyfishing Association was formed, and charged members to fish in the lake, while the park board profited from the canoe and boat rentals. This came to an end in 1938 when the walkway around the lake was constructed and the area declared a bird sanctuary. Civic budgets were significantly reduced during the depression, but the park board benefited from the free labour of relief recipients, who were used to landscape Lost Lagoon.

So is it time to for Vancouver to reconnect Lost Lagoon with the water source that helped to create it in the first place? I think it is, although I realize it’s not without its consequences for the existing lakefront and surrounding trees. Maintaining the lagoon as some sort of artificial man-made lake not only goes against our green-influenced principles, it also does little to support the natural ecosystem that once thrived there a century ago. This is to say nothing about the fact this fresh water body of water has become a veritable toilet for hundreds of Canada geese who frequent the area each year.

Over the years Vancouver has spent millions of dollars to bring former streams back to life in neighbourhoods across the city. The best example of this was the restoration of previously paved-over streams at Hastings Park. Perhaps the time has come for us to unplug the dam and let the salt water flow once again in Lost Lagoon? The only other option may be to watch Vancouver’s most famous man-made lake slowly turn into a green, slimy pool of sludge. What do you think? Should we reconnect Lost Lagoon once again with the ocean?

– post by Daniel

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  • Daniel, I agree with you that this is an interesting proposal. Of course, it boils down to cost and other practicalities. Having a saltwater marsh instead of a feces-filled duck pond might be more in keeping with the spirit of the city’s environment. After all, we see ourselves as connected to the Pacific rim.
    There is the thorny issue of how you connect the two bodies. It would undoubtedly cost millions, and it may have made more sense to attempt this when they did major work on the S-curve over a decade ago.
    Then there is the low grasslands and willow trees behind Second Beach. They no doubt thrive because of the presence of fresh water.
    You’re right that it’s now a bit of a high coliform stew that hardens enought every twenty years or so that we can skate on it for a few days. Otherwise it’s a compelling thought that it might once again become a part of Vancouver’s oceanside attractions.

  • Elizabeth Ball

    Daniel, the suggestions you make are very interesting and might become even more exciting if the wonderful talent and brains at the Aquarium became involved in such a project. Their ongoing capital campaigns and marvellous educational programs could only be enriched by assisting Governments in cleaning up the Lagoon and then, if they were interested, adding it to their educational stewardship. The beauty of the Lagoon is of such importance to both residents and visitors. When I first visited Vancouver as a child one of my most important memories were the magic dancing lights on the water at the entrance to Stanley Park. Since that time, so many people during my travels around the world have mentioned that simple yet beautiful sight. How lucky we are that some citizens had the foresight to recognize how important that body of water would be,

  • Tessa

    I like this idea, but the cost would have to be carefully looked at, and it would make sense to do this with other work that needs to be done, whenever the road or park area there needs a facelift anyway.

  • A couple of sprigs of eurasian milfoil,a few pounds of fertilizer and we’ll have our long-awaited sports field.

  • Nancy

    Apparently at one time there was a proposal to fill in Lost Lagoon and build a new civic building (can’t remember if it was when Vancouver was trying to become BC’s capital and it would have been the legislature).

  • Ken C.

    I’ve wondered how much different this city would be if we had never filled in the False Creek Flats. I do think that we would have a much more beautiful and significant inner harbour, akin to Sydney. It would be great if we could redevelop the area one day and build a network of canals that would be effectively an extension of False Creek while also reviving some of the old streams that were buried, just like the one at the Olympic Village.