Questioning the wisdom of damming a river

Questioning the wisdom of damming a river
An engineer’s illustration of the Site C dam on the Peace River.

The federal government, as expected, has endorsed the massive Site C hydro project on the Peace River. There remains only permission from the British Columbia cabinet for the project to get the green light, although BC Hydro has already served notice that construction will start within 90 days.

A Site C Dam has been an ambition of BC Hydro since the 1970s, and $314 million has been spent on studies. With so much invested, even findings that the project’s needs and benefits are suspect and negative impacts considerable were not going to stand in their way.

Fortunes will be made, mostly by multinational corporations, over the seven or eight years of construction for such things as concrete, the rental of heavy equipment and the manufacturing of components like turbines.

Deals were made long ago. The lobbying pressure in the back rooms must have been intense.

Both the BC and federal governments support any kind of development, regardless of consequences. Public consultation was a necessary nuisance, carried out for show. The input and revelations from those hearings were irrelevant.

The one identifiable pro to the project is that BC Hydro predicts additional electricity will be needed in the coming years (with no time frame) or there will be “rolling blackouts.” They say the 1,050-metre long and 60-metre high Site C dam that will generate 1,100 megawatts is the cheapest and best solution.

In contrast, the cons are plentiful:

In a 450-page report by the Joint Review Panel that examined the project for two and a half years, the summary states: “The Peace River Region has been and is currently undergoing enormous stress from resource development. In this context, the Panel has determined that the Project, combined with past, present and reasonably foreseeable future projects would result in significant cumulative effects on fish, vegetation and ecological communities, wildlife, current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes, and heritage.” The report acknowledged “a long list of serious adverse impacts.”

The predicted cost is close to $8 billion, but according to the World Commission on Dams, projects of this magnitude routinely cost up to 50 per cent more than forecast;

The Clean Energy Association of B.C. argues an alternative: electricity derived from a roster of smaller projects, including upgrades of two existing major BC Hydro facilities plus natural gas-fired electric plants along with wind, solar and biomass – an “alternative portfolio” of projects that could meet the province’s rising electricity demands as much as a billion dollars more cheaply than the cost of a Site C Dam.

The new dam would be the third hydro project on the upper Peace River, located downstream from the existing W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams. It would have an 83-km long reservoir and would flood 3,000 hectares of First Nations’ traditional territory in the region. West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson informed the Panel about concerns of impact from development projects already leaching pollutants into the rivers. He referenced mercury, methyl mercury, selenium and other contaminants from resource developments. He said the cumulative impacts on fish, water flows, water levels and overall watershed protection are a major concern for First Nations: “This is a wildlife corridor and all of this development has had a massive impact,” Willson said in a Journal interview. “Where they want to build this dam is the place that animals can move north-south unmolested.”

The Peace River Valley ecosystems support a diverse range of wildlife, including threatened populations of bull trout, grizzly bears and wolverines, along with countless other plants and animals.

Site C would flood 78 First Nations heritage sites, including burial grounds and places of cultural and spiritual significance.

Around13,000 acres of agricultural land will be lost, with 8,000 of that prime for food growing. With fertile soils, moderate climate, and accessible terrain, the gentle valley slopes and bottomlands along the Peace River have supported farming families for more than a century. They grow forage, cereal and oilseed crops, raise cattle and grow market gardens. Over 12,000 acres of boreal forest will be cleared – prime wildlife birthing habitat as well as migratory bird habitat.

Citing three major landslides in the region over the past fifty years, there is also the question of whether Site C should be built around unstable banks.

Heading north-east, downstream impacts are also a concern. Flow regulation of the Peace River by the existing two dams has altered what is seasonally typical affecting flooding, water chemistry and sediment loads, creating a drier, less productive environment in the Peace-Athabasca and Slave River Deltas. A Site C Dam would magnify those effects, a case put forward by intervenors from Alberta and the NWT.

With so many guaranteed adverse impacts, such massive industrial projects should be a last resort. The existence of viable energy alternatives that challenge the need for yet another industrial project in an already inundated region of the province proves there is little logic to building this dam beyond lining a few pockets.

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