The B.C. and federal governments gave the green light to a third hydro dam on the Peace River last week that will see thousands of hectares of land flooded in the northeastern corner of the province and impacts stretch as far as the Slave River Delta, according to land users in Alberta and the NWT.
Both governments said last Tuesday that the benefits of building B.C. Hydro’s $7.9-billion Site C dam outweigh the significant adverse impacts to people and the environment by offering renewable energy for the next century.
Submissions made during the hearing process by the territorial government and northern Aboriginal groups argued that the cumulative impacts of a third dam on the Peace would have a lasting impact, stretching as far downstream as the Slave River Delta around Fort Resolution, NWT, based on noticeable changes resulting from the existing WAC Bennett dam.
No one from the GNWT was available to comment last week, but the submission the territorial government gave to the review panel in 2013 said there has been a 75 per cent increase in winter flows and a 20 per cent decrease in spring flows in the Peace and Slave Rivers since the Bennett dam was constructed.
That flow regulation has altered what is seasonally typical in terms of water chemistry and sediment loads, creating “a drier, less productive environment” in the Slave River Delta, the submission said.
Aboriginal governments and Parks Canada scientists echoed similar concerns throughout the hearing process, stating that the sensitive Peace-Athanbasca Delta (PAD) ecosystem is already feeling the impacts of upstream hydro development, which has reduced ice-jam flooding, thereby changing the landscape and contributing to the disappearance of certain wildlife.
“Métis Elders in Fort Resolution and Fort Smith…have recounted how the Bennett Dam project has significantly adversely impacted their traditional activities and practices including harvesting, fishing and trapping and in many cases ended their ability to carry out such traditional activities,” states the submission by the NWT Métis Nation.
“They highlight the changes in the Slave River Delta since the Bennett Dam was constructed that have led to the loss of channels and islands, changes in the river flow regime and in the ice, all resulting in a dramatic reduction in fish population, the bird population and wildlife.”
Both submissions from the GNWT and Métis, along with those from First Nations and Métis in Fort Chipewyan and Wood Buffalo National Park, requested the environmental assessment address cumulative effects of the entire Peace River Basin, stretching as far north as the Slave River Delta, and consider the traditional livelihoods of Aboriginal people downstream.
Though “not deaf” to the concerns of land users and scientists in northern Alberta and the NWT, the review panel stated in its environmental assessment report that there would be “no measurable effect” beyond 500 km of the dam and that impacts from the dam would not be distinguishable from those caused by existing hydro and climate change.
“The Panel notes that the changes to the PAD that were reported to the Panel are happening now without the Project. In addition, the PAD is 1,100 km downstream of Site C. While the majority of flow regulation on the Peace River is due to the operation of the Bennett Dam, the additional regulation provided by the Project would be attenuated before reaching the PAD,” the panel said.
Though the dam has received environmental approval from both governments, B.C. still must decide on whether or not to invest now in the 1,100-megawatt project, which is opposed by First Nations and local farmers. The final decision has yet to proceed through cabinet.