British Columbia—the early 1800s. Colonization by the Europeans has not yet begun. Ecosystems are in their natural state or managed under the sustainable ideals of the numerous First Nations bands across the province; populations of all animals flourish in their natural balance. River systems run in an unimpeded web for thousands of kilometres across the province, supporting many unique habitats and one of the world’s most compelling natural events—the Pacific salmon spawn.
At the time of colonization in the 1850s, logging began in earnest, a destructive force across the landscape. To ease access and transport, many forests towering over the coast and large waterways were removed. Everything began to change for the wilderness of BC and for the peoples who inhabited it. Industry was taking its place.
During the early 1920s, with populations increasing and industry expanding, a building boom was underway. To meet the increasing demand for hydroelectric power, many dams along our two major rivers—the Peace and Columbia—were erected. Another push for an increase in power occurred after WWII between the 1950s and the middle of the 1970s, which led to the damming of small waterways in Northern regions as well as major hydroelectric stations outside of Castlegar and Lillooet. At this time, many governments and heads of industry saw any undammed waterway as wasted potential for human use and progress, and rivers were run like machines with flows managed by computers housed many kilometres away.
Today, these 30 or so dams, some of them aging giants, support our power grid by meeting 86 percent of the electrical need in all corners of the province. Dams seem like an easy answer to an ever-growing demand: they don’t create fossil fuels in the creation of power, do not release pollutants which cause acid rain, and provide the consumer with a natural alternative to burning 22 billion gallons of oil each year. Vast networks of people are supported through employment opportunities in cities and rural areas alike. However, there is a lot of conflicting information about dams circulating these days.
Many non-government organizations (NGOs) and First Nations are demanding a closer inspection into the environmental sustainability and impact these dams have on the ecosystems within and around them. In the face of the proposed Site C dam, spearheaded by the crown-owned BC Hydro and under the approval of the current BC government (as of December 2014), dams have become a hot-button issue.
Site C dam, the biggest public infrastructure project proposed in the province’s history, would see the flooding of 5,550 hectares behind a dam on the Peace River, an area equivalent to 14 Stanley Parks. Nestled in this area of the Peace River valley are eight different Treaty 8 First Nations, fertile agricultural lands, as well as flourishing hunting and fishing grounds within the boreal forest. There is important human value placed on this landscape, and it also serves as a vital wildlife corridor for many migrating species such as caribou. This would be the first dam created within the province since 1984, and it is beside the Northern Gateway Pipeline as one of the most controversial issues facing BC right now.
This dam, like others, creates a massive reservoir behind it (as opposed to run-of-river dams), and can be a catastrophic environmental disaster waiting to happen. Many dammed rivers around the world have seen signs of toxic algae bloom caused by stagnant water which decimate fish and bird populations. The downstream trapping of sediments vital to ecosystems, and fragmenting water habitat for many fish species—including migrating salmon—plus the loss of the natural landscape of the area that is flooded and left underwater are other negative impacts of damming.
In spite of this growing concern, the BC government plans to move forward with the Site C project and will begin construction this summer following a nine month federally-sponsored assessment. Many groups maintain that an independent audit is required to fully assess the environmental impact, as well as the need for the dam in the first place. It would fulfill only eight percent of current demands, which will continue to rise. Alternative energy sources, such as the expansion of existing wind farms or tidal generator creation, demand further examination, as does power conservation in general.
Locally, we have a similar battle over the construction or preservation of the Colliery Dams, a short walk from VIU’s Nanaimo campus. In 2012, City Council advised residents of Harewood, which sits in a flood zone, that the dams were to be removed and the reservoirs drained to mitigate damage and death in the event that the dams failed. Residents, many of whom view the dams as a jewel of their community and an important part of the city’s heritage, mounted a campaign to save the dams.
Years later, the issue remains a heated point of contention between the city, the Snuneymuxw First Nation, the general public, and a variety of scientists and lawyers. The Colliery Dams have dominated the Nanaimo City Council meeting agenda again in recent months, with personal liability and options for upgrading of the dams, including installation of an additional spillway, currently on the table.
First Nations interests, environmental impacts, structural integrity, and community and recreational value all come into play in discussion of the Colliery Dams. When the City’s plan was originally revealed in the fall of 2012, the community of Harewood rallied the assistance of geologists and biologists who surveyed all physical aspects of the dam. One of those was biologist Chatal Seadan (formerly Sean Williams). In 2013, he surveyed the ecosystems within the manmade reservoirs as well as below the dam in the Chase River. From this and technical reports from other scientists, he concluded that though the dam is man-made, the ecosystem within it, which is very different from the surrounding environment, has naturalized and appears quite healthy. While doing several dives into the reservoirs, he discovered the salmonid eggs of lake-form Coho, in addition to the stocked population of rainbow trout and naturally occurring crayfish. Not only is there wildlife occurring within the reservoirs, but he saw that the dams have real merit in supporting and improving surrounding ecosystems.
“These nearly static bodies of water may act as a nursery not only for resident salmonids, other fish, birds, and invertebrates, but produce (through holdings and production of plankton, aquatic plants, insects, and other invertebrate larvae) food sources transported to the Lower Chase that not only provide essential (for ocean survival) nourishment but queue instinctive foraging, protective (hiding), and predatory behaviours for salmonids, juvenile birds, and amphibians to list a few,” says Seadan.
Williams and many other scientists are suggesting that the Colliery Dams may help alleviate pressure on the river system that is stressed due to extensive logging upstream. Removing the forest canopy over waterways may cause loose sediments and debris deposits in the river system, and may even raise the risk of flash flooding during major rain events. Greater destruction of salmon habitat downstream may occur without the dams in place, says environmental lawyer Denelle Lambert.
The battle over the Colliery Dams, and many small dams like it, will be won or lost by balancing cultural and community values alongside economics and human safety. In some cases, such as the Site C dam, this is appears easy: losing the habitat and basis of culture for First Nations in the area would be devastating compared to the small amount of power generated. Nanaimo’s own little dam, conversely, involves much more complicated problems.
Walking through the Colliery Dam Park, it’s hard not be overwhelmed by its beauty—the fog caressing its surface, half-frozen in place, surrounded by snow dusted trees as the bugs of summer hang over the water in a falling dusk. It is hard not to think of the generations of families who have learned to swim in its safe waters. It is a pleasant and beautiful place that provides sanctuary from surrounding suburbs and university stress.
Some say that no river benefits from a dam, but if there is one thing I have learned from studying ecology, it is there are no absolutes in the question. There is always an exception and perhaps it is this dam that benefits the river and the people around it. The time when Chase River ran free is a time out of living memory, so without that information to contrast, we can only work with the information available today to make the best decision we can. With careful thought and research, we can find balance.
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