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Massey Medal

2009 Winner - Michael Church

Michael Church. (Photo: Darrell Lecorre)

Going with the flow
This fall, Michael Church (above) will load up a raft with scientific instruments and ride down British Columbia’s Fraser River from Quesnel, through treacherous canyons, to Vancouver. His goal? To weigh in on an ongoing debate over gravel.

Residents living along the lower Fraser’s diked banks worry that the buildup of gravel and sediment as the river flows to the Pacific Ocean increases the risk of flooding. They support large-scale removals of gravel. But others argue that extracting too much of it threatens one of the world’s richest salmon habitats.

To know how much gravel can be removed sustainably, explains Church, you must first figure out how much is being deposited in the waterway. “This is known for very few reaches of very few rivers in the world,” says the fluvial geomorphologist — a specialist in how rivers and streams shape the landscape — and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.

On his rafting trip, Church will measure the Fraser’s flow and analyze sediments to determine whether recent gravel deposits downriver are the result of placer mining during the 19th-century gold rush and blasting to build the first railways and roads. “If we can show that this is a reasonable possibility,” he says, “then we have to really rethink the government’s developing plan for removing gravel from the river.” (The B.C. government has an ongoing program to extract gravel and sediment from the lower Fraser River.)

For his thought-provoking and rigorous science, Church has been awarded the 2009 Massey Medal for outstanding achievement in Canadian geography. Inaugurated by Governor General Vincent Massey in 1959, the award is administered by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

Church has been “instrumental in turning fluvial geomorphology from a descriptive discipline into an analytical science,” says Chris Burn, a professor of geography at Ottawa’s Carleton University and a vice-president of the Society who has known Church for more than 20 years. “He’s brilliant because he sees the crux of an issue and can explain it to people in terms they can understand.”

Church has lent his expertise to numerous resource management debates. He helped write a new forest practices code for British Columbia in the 1990s, regarded at the time as one of the most progressive pieces of environmental legislation in the world. For 40 years, he has studied the effects of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam on the Peace River in northern British Columbia. What he has learned is startling. “It will take 1,000 years or more,” he says, “for the Peace River to completely adapt to something as puny in nature’s scheme of things as a dam.”

— Monique Roy-Sole

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