Jack Danylchuk, August 13, 2010
Yellowknife - Public hearings into a $6.6 billion hydro-electric dam on the Peace River in British Columbia are still a year away, but the Northwest Territories and Alberta have given notice that they will take a hard line on the project and future use of Mackenzie River basin water.
Known as Site C, the 900 megawatt dam and generator got preliminary approval from the British Columbia government in April. BC Hydro wants to begin construction in 2013 and deliver electricity by 2020.
Of no less concern to the GNWT are impacts from a run-of-river hydro-electric project proposed for the Slave River, ever-growing demand from Alberta oil sands developers for water, and industrial pollution in the Athabasca River.
In staking out its strategy, the territorial government is looking to the Mackenzie River Basin trans-boundary agreement that governments have mostly ignored since it was introduced in 1997 to manage water in Western Canada’s largest river system.
The agreement proposed that provinces and territories would manage basin waters in a way that “does not unreasonably harm the integrity of the aquatic ecosystem in any other jurisdiction.” Disputes were to be resolved “in a co-operative and harmonious manner.” Only Yukon and the Northwest Territories signed on.
“We’re saying for this to work for all of us we all need legally-binding agreements that will be clear, detailed and enforceable,” Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger said in an interview.
“There is some urgency now to get this done before Site C proceeds, so that the trans-boundary agreement is considered by the folks looking at Site C,” he said.
“We are more than an intervener; we are a downstream jurisdiction that has legal considerations that have to be addressed the same as aboriginal governments have legal treaties and land claim agreements that have reference to water,” Miltenberger said.
“This is no longer just a case of B.C. being able to move ahead and say ‘in case your interested, we’re building another dam.’ Things have changed dramatically since the days of the Bennett dam and everybody stood quietly by and wondered what happened to the Peace-Athabasca Delta.”
After the Bennett dam went into operation, the flow of the Peace River was turned on its head as the peak shifted from summer to winter when demand was greatest for electricity. The Peace River delta was devastated and a way of life based on subsistence trapping vanished.
BC Hydro says that because Site C will use water stored by the Bennett dam, its downstream impact will be minimal, but Miltenbereger contends that water projects “can’t be assessed in isolation but must be considered among the cumulative impacts on the Mackenzie basin.”
“We’re making the case that first and foremost we have to determine how much water does the land need – just to maintain itself, before we consider human needs,” said Miltenberger. “That’s our first discussion.”
Miltenberger said he will begin meetings this month with Alberta and British Columbia ministers aimed at producing agreements on how to manage the river. “They will all have to make sense and they will all have to be linked together,” he said.
“We will put some effort into the environmental hearings, but more important to us is the political process we’re now engaged in at the highest levels to get the process started to negotiate a really binding trans-boundary agreement. That’s the key piece.”
Carrie Sancartier, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment minister Rob Renner, said the province agrees that legally binding agreements between all three jurisdictions should be in place before hearings into Site C begin “so that they can guide the process.”
A legally-binding agreement between Alberta and the Territories may prove elusive. Communities downstream from the oil sands have repeatedly raised concerns over declining water levels, pollution and impacts on their health and way of life, only to have those disputed by industry and the Alberta government.
Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington said that “if two downstream users are saying there will be no dam because we don’t trust how you will run it, I think that would be a pretty strong appeal to any environmental review board.”
Bevington worked on the Northern River Basin’s study, the precursor to the trans-boundary agreement and recalled that “we said control of the river should not be based on maximizing the return on investment, but on the requirements of the natural aquatic system.”
“B.C. has nothing to be proud of, given the impact from the Bennett dam,” Bevington said. “The impacts are made worse by the way it’s operated, to produce more electricity. There has to be some understanding that that is not the only value to be used.”
Source: provided by the author