By Tom Fletcher, Victoria News, February 09, 2010
WILLISTON LAKE – Standing at the snow-covered north end of the ninth-largest artificial lake in the world, a couple of ironies soon become apparent.
Tsay Keh Dene chief Dennis Izony walks on the north shore of Williston Lake
Jan. 29. Wood debris is piled by excavators as it washes ashore.
(Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
The low, growling noise in the background is the sound of big diesel generators that run 24 hours a day to light the tidy little village of Tsay Keh Dene. It’s one of two remote aboriginal communities abruptly relocated in 1967 to make way for the rising water. This huge reservoir powers a million homes, but the communities that paid the highest price for it are not yet on the BC Hydro grid.
The other irony is the dust, a problem not often associated with flooding. Along with the tangle of dead trees that clog the shoreline, one of the persistent environmental legacies of this 200-kilometre lake is the dust that blows up from the exposed lakebed when the reservoir is drawn down in the summer and fall.
Even in winter, the ongoing source of dust and trees can be seen on the opposite shore. Vertical cliffs of fresh, sandy soil drop to the waterline, as waves and ice erode the bank and bring down more dirt and trees.
There isn’t much economic opportunity here, where nomadic people first settled around the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade. A forest service road from Mackenzie is the only overland way in. The nearest hydro lines are at the Kemess copper mine about 100 km west of here. That mine is shutting down soon, its application to open a new pit rejected after aboriginal objections.
The trees along that narrow road, and as far as the eye can see around the lake, are marked with the now-familiar rusty red colour. About half of them are dead from pine beetles.
I flew in to the gravel airstrip with a group of BC Hydro and provincial government officials to mark the end of a long dispute. The province and BC Hydro reached an out-of-court settlement with the Tsay Keh Dene, similar to an earlier deal with the Kwadacha First Nation, further north at the former Hudson’s Bay trading post of Fort Ware.
The Tsay Keh Dene receive a one-time payment of $20.9 million, to be held in a professionally managed trust, and another $3 million a year, adjusted for inflation for as long as the W.A.C. Bennett Dam produces power.
Speaking with local elders and Kwadacha historian Susan Hatfield-McCook, a picture emerges of the impact of the dam. Living on traplines with a scattering of remote cabins, some people found out about it only when they fled from the rising water. Others had their homes dragged to higher ground. People used to boating to Mackenzie on a familiar river tried the same thing on the huge new reservoir, and died.
This wasn’t the first time aboriginal people were flooded out in B.C. The Kenney dam did the same thing in Cheslatta Carrier territory in 1952, when engineers on the Kemano project decided at the last moment to extend the reservoir to Cheslatta Lake. The Cheslatta people were given three weeks’ notice of eviction.
Here at Tsay Keh Dene, scientists are studying ways to control the dust. Local residents will be contracted to do the work, and to clean up the masses of driftwood along the shore.
Back in the city, debate continues over the impact of run-of-river power, wind generation and other ways to meet future power needs. Soon it will turn to the question of a third dam on the Peace.
The lessons learned here will be important.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com.