By Emmalee Biebl
Since starting at Fraser Riverkeeper, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time around the edges of False Creek assisting our Water Monitoring Coordinator, Katie Moore. We frequently have passersby ask us about the water quality—many saying they would never get in the water here— alluding to some dirty, industrial past. As someone who just moved to Vancouver a few years ago, I only knew False Creek as the beautiful park-lined inlet where paddlers and boaters enjoy the water year-round. The more time I spent working around the inlet, the more questions I had unanswered. I mean, why is it even called False Creek?
Emmalee collects a water sample in False Creek East, Vancouver, 2019
I decided I wanted to learn more so I began a deep dive into the history of False Creek. As it turns out, the answer to my first question about why False Creek is “false” is quite simple. An English hydrographer, G.H. Richards, who was surveying the inlet in the mid-1800s, had initially thought he was travelling up a creek. As he travelled inward, he realized that it was not a creek but an inlet and so became the name “False Creek”!1
I learned that when European colonizers arrived there were thriving indigenous settlements all along the inlet. The Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations had already inhabited the area that is now called "Vancouver" for thousands of years and relied on the abundance of natural resources in the region for all aspects of life.2
False Creek was once about 5 times the size it is today and flowed as far as what is currently Clark Drive, which means my home in Strathcona would have been on the waterfront! I can’t help but think how nice that would be for us East Vancouverites who have so few options to access the water compared to residents in the west. Before the railway company filled in the portion of False Creek that flowed east of Main Street to build the Pacific Central Station, it was an area rich in biodiversity. The inlet was made up of tidal flats and grasslands with small streams flowing into it.3 The abundance of wildlife and natural resources meant that False Creek was an important area for First Nations to fish, hunt, and harvest traditional foods.
ca. 189?: Looking north from Mount Pleasant at False Creek. Westminster Bridge (now Main Street), runs over False Creek, which flows all the way to Clark Drive.
With European settlement, False Creek became a booming industrial area where tons of industrial and sewage waste flowed into the inlet on a daily basis.4 I learned that the inlet quickly changed from the lush biodiverse waterway to an industrial wasteland.
I was surprised to find out that just over a hundred years ago Granville Island was not an island but a sandbar revealed at low tide. Just below the Granville Bridge, was an area named “Snauq” which translates to “sandbar” in the Squamish language.5 The area was a winter settlement for the Squamish people that provided abundant conditions for fishing.6 After much dispute, the National Harbour Commission took ownership of the sandbar, quickly built a seawall around it, and filled it with soil to make room for even more industry.7
Decades of industry in this area have had major impacts on the ecology and wildlife of False Creek. However, following many urban revitalization projects beginning in the ‘70s, we’ve seen a resurgence of bird populations and marine life. This has transformed False Creek into the popular spot I know it as today, providing year-round access for Vancouverites and tourists to connect with the water. While many improvements to the area have been made, residual industrial pollution and E.coli contamination still impact the water quality here. I learned that this is one of the main reasons why Fraser Riverkeeper has been dedicated to keeping a close eye on False Creek for many years.
ca. 1970: Areal view of an industrial False Creek, looking north towards downtown.
In 2018, we launched a small monitoring program in order to collect samples and environmental observations throughout the year, adding to the data that is collected by Metro Vancouver in the summer months. Our mission was, and still is, to provide the public with up-to-date water quality information and to track how the water body changes over time. After our first season, we published the False Creek Water Monitoring Program First Season Report that detailed our findings after months on the water. We have since expanded the program which we have called the Vancouver Water Monitoring Program. Each week, we collect samples at Olympic Village, Brokers’ Bay, and Vanier Park, and hope to add sites beyond False Creek in the coming months.
I was excited to learn more about False Creek by spending more time around the water body and diving into its history. Despite its many improvements, the water quality in False Creek, like all water bodies, still changes as quickly as the weather. Before you head out on the water, be sure to check out our latest sample results on our website and find water quality information for over 8000 beaches on Swim Guide.
5: Maracle, Lee. "Goodbye, Snauq." Our Story. Toronto: Dominion Institute and Anchor, 2005. 205-19. Print. p.206