The Ghost Streams of False Creek

False Creek wharf under construction foot of Carrall St. 1899 – James Matthews photo

Back in 1899, at the foot of what used to be Carrall Street (and where now is a skateboard park under the Georgia St. Viaduct) , men with horse-drawn excavation equipment worked on getting a new wharf ready on False Creek.

Local creeks in the area were a bloody nuisance to the settlers and their bosses, the owners of breweries, slaughter houses and railway companies. So, the creeks and rivulets were simply “disappeared” underground. Down grated culverts, into the blackness – still flowing ceaselessly. There were 15 of them, now all “ghosts”, but now carrying a range of foul substances into the “receiving waters” of the Salish Sea, via our own slender sliver of it, False Creek.

Gone were the free-flowing streams full of life, bringing down important nutrients to the sea critters which sustained the original Indigenous inhabitants for millennia.

When our European ancestors began turning the False Creek watershed into a settlement,  the fifteen or so local creeks became a very handy garbage disposal network. Their piss and poop,  ash from their wood stoves,  farmyard offal – all simply  “disappeared” downstream. “This is how it was done in old London,” Dr. Peter Ross , of Raincoast Conservation Foundation, told me.  “Our early municipal engineers learned from the old ways.”

Sewer under King Edward Ave 1913

As streets were gazetted and neighborhoods grew, the creeks were buried underground, imprisoned in storm sewers.  Some of the original creek names still survive in other forms. Willow Creek became Willow Avenue. China Creek is now another skateboard park.  Brewery Creek (which indeed was named for a brewery) has now been reincarnated as a   liquor store.

Despite the fact that these  fifteen creeks have essentially been “canceled”, they are still there, flowing pretty much continuously – but now, at times,  carrying a different noxious load:  domestic sewage that escapes into the storm sewers during heavy rains; metabolites from opioids and birth control pills; microplastics from our washing machines. And one of them is a lethal salmon toxin (6PPD-quinone), a  a chemical that makes car tires tougher and particles of it gets flushed off the roads, into the sewers, and into False Creek, and thence into the majestic Salish Sea.

All together  our  urbanized watershed  carries millions of liters of polluted liquid into the receiving waters of FC every year.  Governments are well aware of the problem – and have committed to separating storm sewers from domestic sanitary sewers – but the final solution is still many years and hundreds of millions of dollars away.

For a variety of reasons we really need to find out what we’re dumping into False Creek now. For our own health, to be sure. But equally important, for the health and vitality of our marine environment, upon which all life on Earth depends.

Our group, False Creek Friends Society, is working with Dr. Ross in his Healthy Waters program –  a network of community groups both rural and urban, all of them committed to study what’s escaping from polluted watersheds up and down the Salish Sea. This Spring, we’ll be launching a community science effort, completely volunteer-based, to help Raincoast find out exactly how we’re mucking things up.  

This is important, meaningful work. We’re in discussions with the City of Vancouver and Metro Vancouver (the former GVRD)  and we’ll begin sampling the ghost streams of False Creek. There will be other community activities to raise awareness of “water flowing underground.”

Of course, this work will not do what many would like to see happen: the “daylighting” of the entombed ghost creeks – bringing them back to the light of day. As Celia Brauer, the founder of False Creek Watershed Society says, “We will never have people move out of their houses to daylight a creek. We are better off greening areas and getting people to care for the land like it matters.”

Amen to that. Let’s all do what we can.  If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, or supporting our Healthy Waters project, write us at or sign up here.

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