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A proposed dam on the Peace River in northeastern British Columbia would be the third hydroelectric site on the river. - image courtesy of BC Hydro
Paulette condemns B.C. hydro project
Opinions vary on proposed B.C. dam's effects on North

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Saturday, April 24, 2010

THEBACHA/FORT SMITH - The NWT is looking south with concern as British Columbia has announced its intention to build a third dam on the Peace River, which is part of a watershed nourishing the North.

On April 19, the B.C. government announced it will move forward with the 900-megawatt dam, which it calls Site C, and proceed to environmental assessment.

Francois Paulette, a well-known aboriginal activist and former chief in Fort Smith, said he is "absolutely" concerned about the proposed dam.

"You just need to look at the Bennett Dam, which has destroyed the whole Peace/Athabasca Delta, and the Slave River Delta," he said.

Paulette says water flow has decreased since the Bennett Dam was built in the 1960s.

"This definitely puts nails in the coffin," he said of Site C, adding it will affect the hydrology, fish and vegetation on the river system as far north as the Mackenzie Delta.

Paulette also rejected the B.C. government's claim that the dam would create clean energy.

"They shouldn't use 'clean' when it's going to kill a river," he said.

The proposed dam also involves treaty rights to water, said Paulette, a member of Smith's Landing First Nation who lives just south of Fort Smith in Fort Fitzgerald, Alta.

First Nations affected by the dam may go to litigation, he warned.

"If the First Nations are really concerned about Mother Earth, they may do that."

Paulette, who lives along the Slave River, also believes the people and government of the NWT should take action to make their voices heard.

David Conway, the community relations manager with BC Hydro, tells a much different story.

"We don't believe the Site C project will have any significant change to the flow of water or water levels in the Peace/Athabasca Delta," he said.

Conway said the purpose of the water reservoir would be to create a head of water for electrical generation, not for water storage.

The reservoir would be 83 km long and on average two to three times the current width of the river.

The water will pass through the dam in a week or two, Conway said.

"That's why we don't expect the flows to change significantly," he said.

Plus, he said modelling has indicated Site C would have no significant impact on ice formation and breakup in the Peace/Athabasca Delta.

Conway also said the Bennett Dam has not harmed the river system.

"The research is shown to be contrary to what most people believe," he said, adding the Bennett Dam was built in a climatic dry period.

Plus, he said ice jams are a major cause of flooding on the Peace/Athabasca Delta and their frequency has increased since the Bennett Dam was built.

"Water flow has not decreased," he said. "The same amount of water comes through."

However, he said the water flow is "shaped" to put more water through the Bennett Dam at times of high electricity use, such as in the winter.

"The flows are there," he said. "It's just more spread out."

Conway said the environmental assessment of the Site C project will be independent and involve both the provincial and federal governments.

One of the components will be extensive consultations with First Nations in B.C., Alberta, and the NWT, he said.

"The Crown has a constitutional duty to First Nations."

Site C is about seven km southwest of Fort St. John and roughly 100 km downstream from the Bennett Dam.

The GNWT appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the proposed dam.

"We don't have a position on the dam itself," said Jane McMullen, acting director, land and water, with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

McMullen said it would be difficult for the GNWT to say what its position will be in advance of the environmental assessment.

The GNWT will be watching to see if the proposed dam may possibly affect the flow of clean and abundant water to the North.

"Definitely, if there's something that's going to affect that, we will be concerned," McMullen said. "We're not going to prejudge."

She said the GNWT hasn't made any decision on how it may participate in the environmental assessment, noting it might become an intervener or support others.

She thinks a meeting in the NWT as part of the environmental assessment would be a good idea.

McMullen said that, when the B.C. government starting talking about the project several years ago, the GNWT registered to receive information.

"We've been nothing more than notified," she said. "We haven't had discussions with B.C."

McMullen said an NWT Water Stewardship Strategy is expected to be released sometime in May. It will set out a vision and goals for northern water.

If built, the dam at Site C would be 1,100 metres long and would produce enough electricity to power approximately 410,000 homes per year.

The regulatory review phase is expected to take about two years, and the B.C. government anticipates Site C will be producing domestic electricity by 2020.

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