U.S. plan to flood Similkameen Valley draws B.C.'s attention
By Scott Simpson,
B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner asked U.S. regulators Tuesday for intervenor status on a proposal by a Washington state utility to flood 3,650 hectares of B.C.’s Similkameen Valley for a hydro dam.
The threatened land includes two aboriginal reserves, two provincial protected areas, a potential national park, and “high quality agricultural land,” according to a six-page letter from Penner to the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (or FERC).
At least 20 blue- and red-listed animal and plant species would be impacted, Penner said in the letter, noting that Canada’s Species at Risk Act “prohibits any action which threatens, damages or destroys a threatened or endangered species or its habitat.”
The Okanogan County Public Utilities District has applied to U.S. regulators to build a dam either 27 or 80 metres high at Shanker’s Bend on the U.S. portion of the Similkameen River.
The high dam alternative would create a 7,300-hectare reservoir — half of which would be on the Canadian side of the valley in southeast B.C., along one of the most bucolic tourist routes on the continent.
The dam’s operating capacity would be 43 megawatts — a nominal amount given the scale of its impact. But it would also serve as a reservoir to provide water for agriculture in eastern Washington.
“While British Columbia certainly supports the responsible use and development of hydropower, we do believe such projects need to be appropriately sited and designed to avoid unacceptable environmental impacts,” Penner stated in the letter.
He said the province opposes the proposed 80-metre high dam “because of the anticipated environmental and community impacts in British Columbia.”
Penner said the 27-metre low-dam proposal also raises concerns because of “how the dam could impact British Columbia in years of high water.”
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is already actively opposing the proposal and had been pressing the province to get involved.
“I’ve intended to seek intervenor status for some time, but I also wanted to make sure that our T’s were crossed and our I’s were dotted,” Penner said in an interview. “We’ve retained legal counsel in the United States to help us prepare for our intervention request.”
Penner said the legal firm the government retained previously represented the province’s interests in the successful battle to block development of the Sumas Two gas-fired generating station in Washington, just across the Canada-U.S. border from Abbotsford.
Chloe O’Loughlin, executive director of the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, lauded Penner’s involvement.
“The dam is entirely unacceptable from an ecosystem perspective and from a cultural perspective,” O’Loughlin said.