Fort Chip residents share Peace River hydro concerns

Fort Chip residents share Peace River hydro concerns
Lorne Antoine from Allison Bay on Lake Athabasca (left) and Smith’s Landing First Nation councillor John Tourangeau attend the informal public discussion with members of the Mighty Peace Watershed Alliance on Tuesday, Jan. 15. Photo: Meagan Wohlberg.

Residents of Fort Chipewyan had a chance to share concerns on the impacts of hydro projects on the Peace River last week during a visit by the newly-established Mighty Peace Watershed Alliance (MPWA).

Representatives from MPWA – the newest of Alberta’s 11 watershed planning and advisory councils (WPACs) – visited Fort Chip’s Mamawi Community Centre last Tuesday to gather stories and concerns regarding the health of the 1,923-km Peace, which stretches from the ice fields in BC’s Rocky Mountains to the Slave River in northeastern Alberta, and its importance to the area.

Most of the 25 attendees expressed concerns about the drop in water level experienced by the community when BC Hydro’s W.A.C. Bennett dam was built in 1968, noting that the most recently-proposed Site C dam could seriously impact what water the community, perched on the edge of the Peace-Athabasca Delta and downstream from oilsands industry, will receive in the future.

“Our livelihood was trapping at one time, but now the water is so low,” Lorne Antoine, a resident of Allison Bay on Lake Athabasca, told the alliance. “It has to be that (Bennett) dam. And now they’re talking about another one. What will we have? The Peace River could be just a little stream in the future if we do nothing about it.”

Such a change could permanently change the ecology of the region.

“The Athabasca’s giving all it can, but it can’t fill Lake Athabasca on its own,” Larry Martin, a local trapper, added. “It’s just those two rivers. There’s no other rivers flowing into Lake Athabasca.”

Low water levels, according to locals, have made it hard for muskrats to survive in the region.

“Water levels are down by half a mile,” said Jackson Whiteknife, also of Allison Bay, reflecting on changes he has observed on the Peace since his childhood. “Rats can’t survive. They need a good flood to flush the bad stuff out. The sloughs are all rotten.”

BC Hydro’s $6-billion Site C dam could be under construction within two years, generating 4,600 gigawatt hours per year by 2020. The project is moving to the third stage of environmental review and, if it passes, will then enter detailed engineering planning followed quickly by construction.

It would be the third dam on the river, built downstream of the existing Bennett and Peace Canyon dams. Its reservoir would span 83 km lengthwise and triple the width of the Peace, flooding an ecologically and agriculturally rich area.

As Alberta attempts to finalize its transboundary water agreements with BC and the Northwest Territories, it is simultaneously pushing for “state of the watershed” reports for every major river in the province. Though late to the game, the MPWA hopes to have its own report done within the next two years, followed by an integrated watershed management plan for the Peace by 2018.

Since August 2011, the MPWA has held public engagement forums up and down the river, which crosses 15 First Nations and two Métis settlements, to collect science and local knowledge needed to create recommendations for the Alberta government.

Recommendations will be developed through a consensus process involving MPWA’s board of directors, which includes representatives from government, industry, Aboriginal communities and non-governmental organizations.

“Industry is looking at us right now, so we need to know what the baseline is,” MPWA’s executive director Rhonda Clarke-Gauthier told meeting participants.

Besides hydro, two pulp mills are currently drawing surface water from the Peace, while the oil and gas industry could potentially develop shale gas extraction via fracking in the future.

Antoine said it is up to residents along the Peace to use this opportunity to establish a scientific baseline before an industrial boom akin to the oilsands pops up downstream.

“You have a window so you can do all the studies, so that they can’t do to you what (the oilsands) did to us,” he said.

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