Energy Lands and Environment Politics

Double Standards on Dam Development in Canada’s North and South

Just outside of Fort St. John, B.C., swaths of fertile farmland rolling down from the high cliffs of the Montney Formation have been cleared, a work camp has been built and crews are working steadily at excavating the riverbed.

Just two weeks ago, the B.C. Supreme Court granted BC Hydro an injunction to remove protesters who have set up along the banks of the Peace River, rallying against the Site C hydro project.

In the Northwest Territories, First Nations and territorial politicians alike have agreed that the territory should have a say in hydroelectric developments that affect its waters.

The project therefore seems ripe for a sort of agreement that would outline how impacts will be mitigated, addressed, and atoned for: a transboundary water agreement, if you will. The Northwest Territories has one with B.C., but it only covers the Petitot and Liard Rivers. All other rivers, such as the Peace, flow through Alberta first.

The governments of Alberta and the Northwest Territories both made submissions to the federal-provincial joint review panel for Site C. Each made the case that the natural flow of water and seasonal levels have changed significantly with the development of the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams – both already in operation on the Peace River. With Site C under construction just down river from the first two, both governments expressed concern that further impacts would be felt downstream.

The panel, while noting significant impacts would be felt in the Peace region where the dam will be located, found that no measurable impact would be seen further downstream in the Peace Athabasca Delta and required no cumulative effects assessment. This is despite a lawsuit filed by the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations of Fort Chipewyan, in the heart of the delta – a suit that has since been dropped, though not for lack of concern.

It’s also a break from the federal government’s previously expressed position on dam projects.

In the North, any sort of considerations for those downstream have been quickly washed away by the suggestion that no impacts will be felt more than 500 kilometres from the dam.

A 2004 Environment Canada study titled Threats to Water Availability in Canada calls dams of varying types “structures that transform river ecosystems over a range of spatial and temporal scales.”

The report goes on to say that study on the downstream effects of dams is necessary, considering that “most rivers are ice-covered for a significant portion of the year, and ice is a major source of extreme events (low flows and floods) and a significant modifier of hydro-ecological processes.

“Such a program should also focus on assessing far-downstream effects and cumulative impacts on systems containing multiple dams/reservoirs,” it adds.

Canada already houses an existing agreement on the way hydro developments along a river system are managed. Coming into effect in 1964, the Columbia River Treaty is an agreement between the Canadian and U.S. governments to co-manage power and flood control through dam development in the basin of the Columbia River, a waterway shared by B.C. and several states, including Washington and Oregon.

One of the main forces behind this treaty, at least on the Canadian side, was B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett – the aforementioned dam’s namesake. Bennett’s “Two Rivers Policy” outlined ambitious hydroelectric development on two of the province’s rivers: the Columbia and the Peace. In the early 1960s under Bennett, BC Hydro was created out of the amalgamation of several entities, becoming the proprietor of dams under the Columbia River Treaty and responsible for the treaty itself.

Within the treaty, it was agreed that the U.S. would pay for flood control and water storage provided through B.C.’s dams, and send some of the power generated downstream back to B.C. The province’s three dams on the Columbia – two for flood control and one for hydroelectric power – cannot, under the agreement, be operated in a way that adversely affects downstream flow in the U.S.

The treaty has been strife with controversy since its inception, partly due to the “devastating effects” the developments had on First Nations in B.C., which included flooding of traditional lands.

But, here’s the real kicker: under the treaty, B.C. currently sells the amount of power Site C will eventually produce back to the U.S – a point made by Harry Swain, one of the three members of the Site C joint review panel. Swain urged the government to consider how the treaty impacts its power stores, suggesting that by reconfiguring the agreement, Site C might not even be necessary.

While there is no expiry date on the Columbia River Treaty, both Canada and the U.S. have the right – with 10-years’ notice given – to renegotiate or terminate the provisions of the treaty as of 2024. This happens to be the same year Site C is slotted for completion.

A review process of the treaty began in 2014, by both the U.S. and B.C. governments. Thus far, the U.S. has voiced interest in paying less than what it currently does for the amount of water storage provided by B.C. that allows for increased generation at several dams south of the border. Hardly a win for Canada.

B.C. has been hesitant to back out of the treaty completely. Even though the majority of power supplied to Canada by the U.S. is sold back to the Americans, terminating the treaty since would mean the amount of power the U.S. sends to B.C. under the agreement would no longer be mandated, which would see a reduction in power heading to Canada for either consumption or re-sale.

In southern B.C., where land and treaty rights were sacrificed for development and mass quantities of produced power are sold back to the U.S., the Columbia River Treaty ensures that dam development benefits downstream partners—to the extent that the U.S. is actually paying the province back for its efforts. At least for now.

Meanwhile, in the North, any sort of considerations for those downstream have been quickly washed away by the suggestion that no impacts will be felt more than 500 kilometres from the dam. A decade of negotiations on how Canada can work with the U.S. on water management and power production is underway, yet within our own borders, it’s not even up for discussion.◉

Photo: The frozen Slave River in the Northwest Territories, where low water levels, overflow, and variations in ice thickness have been blamed on hydro development in northern B.C.’s Peace River. Credit: Meagan Wohlberg

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